The incisive documentarian on We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks and Silence in the House of God.
“We Steal Secrets is as brilliant as you’d expect,” James Robinson wrote for The Lumière Reader after seeing Alex Gibney’s WikiLeaks documentary at its Sundance premiere earlier this year. “It’s a hypnotic, absurd human drama and Gibney turns it over expertly and from all sides. No one has put this story together in such a complete fashion.” Via Skype from his New York office on Friday, the enduring documentarian talked passionately with Alexander Bisley about Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and inspiration Martin Scorsese.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Here’s the rub. Two Swedish women including Anna, a WikiLeaks supporter you interview in We Steal Secrets, have made credible allegations of significant sexual crime against Julian Assange. How do his supporters maintain he should be above the law?
ALEX GIBNEY: I don’t know how they make that claim. I don’t know how he makes that claim either. In my view this is a big problem. I don’t think he should be above the law, or above criticism. Now he maintains that if he goes back to Sweden he’ll be extradited to the United States, and that’s why he’s not going. But there’s no evidence of that. In fact there’s evidence of just the opposite, that it’s harder to extradite him from Sweden than it is from the United Kingdom. Furthermore, these Assange people also make a big deal out of this idea that if the Swedes have questions they can just call him up at the [Ecuadorian] embassy. But the Swedish prosecutor has made it clear that they’re not interested in asking Assange more questions relating to evidence in the case. If he goes to Sweden, he will likely be arrested and charged.
AB: This seems to me the definition of power without accountability, which is supposedly Assange’s big thing.
AG: I agree with you. I think he’s all about holding others to account, holding the powerful to account. And he, in relation to these two Swedish women, has power. He has a huge pulpit and a large number of supporters, and he has allowed them to vilify these women without attempting in any way, shape, or form, to stop that. So yes, he’s not willing to be held to account in any way, shape or form, and that’s one of the issues I have with Assange and WikiLeaks.
AB: At first you too thought the Swedish story was a CIA honey trap? But having researched it thoroughly, you don’t believe that to be the case?
AG: I can find no evidence that it was a CIA honey trap, absolutely no evidence. So, people can say what they want, or imagine whatever they like, but until they produce evidence, as far as I’m concerned it’s a matter between one man and two women.
AB: You spent ages, including one six hour in-person session, talking to Lord Transparency about doing an interview, he suggested money, demanded control over the article, that you spread the gospel according to Assange, and then most extraordinarily, he then asked you to spy on your documentary’s other subjects in return for an interview?
AG: Correct. It was the last part that really staggered me. Julian likes intrigue, and he likes the idea of espionage. Julian likes to involve himself in all sorts of intrigue as if he’s in some kind of spy thriller, and suddenly he’s asking me for “intel”—he keeps calling it “intel”. He reprimanded Daniel Domscheit-Berg with language that was taken straight out of The Espionage Act of 1917. It’s this cloak and dagger stuff where Assange loses credibility, let’s put it that way.
AB: “The problem is power,” you told Bill Maher in your recent interview about priests abusing their power for sex, as documented in your very moving Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. Assange’s initial intentions were noble, but it seems the power—all these sycophantic supporters on the internet—went to his head?
AG: I think so. I think we can exaggerate Assange’s power, he doesn’t have power the way the United States of America has power, but he does have some power, and I think he felt empowered, let’s put it that way, when he became one of the most famous people on the planet, and suddenly he seemed to regard himself and the transparency agenda as one in the same, and they’re not the same. One’s an idea, the other’s a rather flawed human being, who, let’s forgive him for making a number of mistakes, we all make mistakes, but the trick is to learn from your mistakes and also to admit them. That’s what being held to account is all about, and that’s where I think he’s failed. Because I think if you were to boil down my biggest gripe about Assange, and frankly there’s much in the film that praises him at great length, my problem is that he had a wonderful opportunity to carry forward the transparency agenda in a way that could have been unimpeachable, and instead I think he bungled it, in part because of his own self regard and unwillingness to hold himself to account.
AB: “He’s like a guy constantly giving a speech in his Evita-like way on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy,” I agree with your critique of his mega- statements via megaphone style.
AG: Right, yeah [laughs]. I do think he has become somebody who wants to be the story all the time instead of letting the events and issues be the story, and therefore, in that way, he has transgressed some of his most fundamental principles. He says in the film: “WikiLeaks needed a face, and I regret that it needs to have a face but it needs a face.” In some ways early on, I would say that Julian Assange’s fame, his rather striking looks, and his charisma actually serves WikiLeaks well, but over time fame seemed to overtake Assange in a way that his notoriety was far more important than preserving the fundamental principles of the organisation.
AB: There’s an extraordinary moment in We Steal Secrets where the fêted Guardian journalist Nick Davies records: “Julian said, ‘if an Afghan civilian helps occupying forces he deserves to die’.”
AG: Yes, Nick Davies said that that’s precisely what Julian said to him. I believe Nick Davies, I think Julian often says rather inflammatory things in order to get attention, but I think in a fundamental way Julian Assange is what I would call a Transparency Radical, and I don’t think he had much interest early on in redacting those Afghan war logs.
AB: In another dramatic moment Michael Hayden says, “we steal secrets.”
AG: “We steal secrets,” which is the title of the film, is not something said by Julian Assange, it’s something that’s said by Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the NSA. It’s an important admission by a very prominent former public official. I think that title in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks is even more resonant than it was before.
AB: What was your biggest surprise making the documentary?
AG: Bradley Manning. When Julian was resistant to being interviewed and I pursued an interview with him over the course of a year, we began to explore more of the story of Bradley Manning. Because, after all, the story of WikiLeaks is not just a story on Julian Assange. WikiLeaks is a publisher, but in order for a publisher to publish you have to have material, that means you have a leaker. Bradley Manning was the leaker. All of WikiLeaks most important documents and video materials all come from one person, Bradley Manning. So it seemed to me he had been the guy who was written out of the story, and it was very important to put him back in the center.
AB: Trust, the human relationship between a journalist and a subject, net drop boxes can’t provide that necessarily?
AG: Not necessarily I mean I think in this era where’s it’s becoming more and more dangerous to be an investigative journalist, I think that the idea of the anonymous electronic drop box is probably a good one. But I don’t think it’s always a good idea. And in the case of Bradley Manning it honestly failed him, because when he needed somebody to talk to after he had leaked, and not only about what he had leaked but also his own personal situation, he needed somebody to confide in, and the dropbox doesn’t provide for that.
AG: It is increasingly tough and I agree with David Simon that that is really a problem, and I think we have to figure out a way to begin to pay for it. There has to be an economic model that allows for it [my raggedy laptop crashes in a metaphorical gesture]. It’s bad. I hope someone figures out an economic solution. I’m not sure I know.
AB: From the outrageously good Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room to Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer via Oscar-winner Taxi to the Dark, you’ve made prominent documentaries. In 2010, Esquire said, “Alex Gibney is becoming the most important documentarian of our time.” How did you enjoy your lesser-known work producing Martin Scorsese’s Blues series?
AG: It was inspirational. It changed my whole career. This was a great idea, the idea of having seven fiction filmmakers all do documentaries on the blues. What was so inspiring about it to me was that they honored the reality of the music and the lives of the musicians that surrounded the music, but they also took great care and pain to try to find a visual style that was both true to them, as artists, and also seemed to make sense for the subject being treated. So suddenly, it was like you didn’t have this straightforward documentary rulebook that said everything has to be the same and you didn’t have to apply these standard rules to everything, suddenly these were authored documentaries in ways that were very provocative and personal. So that taught me a lot, and if I hadn’t served as producer on that series, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I have been able to do.
AB: Scorsese is such a great director. How’s it working with him?
AG: He has such extraordinary charisma, and also he’s like the Energiser Bunny. You see sparks fly, and of course he talks very fast in rapid-fire fashion, but ideas are just sparking off his forehead. His mouth can’t catch up to the number of ideas he has at a certain moment in time. And he has this prodigious knowledge of cinema, which is very inspiring to filmmakers, and he’s a great believer in artists’ rights and supporting artists. So for all those reasons Marty was great to work with, and obviously as a director he’s titanically talented.
AB: Have any of his films been a particular inspiration?
AG: I remember Mean Streets being hugely powerful to me, and also Goodfellas and The Last Waltz, great, great achievements. Raging Bull was an incredible film.
AB: It’s one of my favourites. Scorsese seems to have this infectious enthusiasm for movies, for people, and for life itself.
AG: That’s right. I think infectious enthusiasm is as good a description as any. He’s in love with the movies, and that affection seeps in everybody who’s in his presence.
AB: Do you see a connecting thread through your documentaries?
AG: Embrace the contradictions.
AB: Your message for the new Gibney critics like Oliver Stone is to see the film?
AG: See the film. That would be my message. See the movie, then decide.
Thanks to Melinda Jackson for transcription assistance on this article.
‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks’ and ‘Silence in the House of God’ screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.
 AG: He did redact some, he held back 15,000 Afghan war logs, but there were a lot of war logs that were unredacted when they went out on the WikiLeaks website, which didn’t end up causing anybody any harm, but they did a tremendous amount of political damage, both to WikiLeaks and to the Transparency Agenda.
 AB: One bad thing WikiLeaks did was disclosing information that harmed the incredibly heroic Morgan Tsvangirai (leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change), and democracy in that country. AG: I’m not familiar with that.
 AG: It became the title in order to set this whole story in a broader context, that there is a huge moral grey area when it comes to this issue of secrets, what should and should not be secret, what secrets should and should not be stolen, what secrets should and should not be leaked. And that’s the context in which that title serves a pretty important function. You look at some of my past films, you mention Enron, the title of that film was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. “The Smartest Guys in the Room” was intended to be ironic, and did not indicate that I believed that Ken Lay and Edward Skilling were actually the smartest guys in the room. Likewise, there is a certain intended irony in the title We Steal Secrets.
 AG: I think Edward Snowden made a very important announcement saying that when he was leaking he wanted to make sure not to leak in a way that was anonymous because he couldn’t discuss with somebody how his material would be used. So in that way I think there are problems. On the other hand, the New Yorker magazine has just adopted a version of an electronic dropbox, which was designed by the internet activist Aaron Schwartz, so I think you’re going to see a lot of different kinds of solutions to the same fundamental problem.
 AB: On another note, David Simon is very skeptical about the NSA controversy: “The U.K.’s Guardian, which broke this faux-scandal, is unrelenting in its desire to scale the heights of self-congratulatory hyperbole.”