It’s now been more than three years since the world saw the horrifying footage of the “Collateral Murder” video: civilians mown down in a ghastly battlefield error. Their would-be rescuer—a father taking his children to school—similarly shot to pieces by a U.S. helicopter gunship, its pilots chatting and laughing as if playing a video game.
And for those who kept watching, an aspect of the footage often forgotten: a Hellfire missile fired into a building, with no regard of the passerby just outside. Waiting a mere few seconds longer could’ve kept him safe—but no. Amid the revulsion at the earlier horror of the clip, this became a mere background detail.
That footage was just the start of a string of ever-larger WikiLeaks document releases, reporting, and revelations that shook the faith of many around the world in the U.S. government’s activities—from revelations of death squads operating in Afghanistan, through complicity in torture in the Iraq documents, to evidence of spying on U.N. diplomats in U.S. Embassy cables.
Now, two years after the last release of that kind of significance—the Guantánamo files—comes an opportunity to reflect on WikiLeaks; its most famous source, Bradley Manning; and its ever-divisive founder, Julian Assange.
That opportunity is the release of Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets, a fast-paced, two-hour foray through the story of WikiLeaks, its founder, and what happened next. It’s a film that’s been roundly condemned by Julian Assange and his remaining supporters long before they’ve gone to the trouble of seeing it. Why?
One all-too-plausible reason is that Gibney’s fil—spoiler alert, if it’s possible to spoil a documentary—is perhaps the nearest you can come to living the WikiLeaks experience without having actually been there.
For me, the film was more like déjà vu—something I’d lived once already. From summer 2010, WikiLeaks became my life for months. First, at the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, I was part of the team working for 10 weeks investigating the Iraq War Logs for Al Jazeera English and Arabic, Channel 4’s flagship Dispatches documentary, and iraqwarlogs.com.
I then went a step further, working directly for WikiLeaks for several months on the embassy cables—analyzing the cables, distributing them to staff, writing press releases, appearing on TV, and more.
It was groundbreaking, important journalism, but it was done against the backdrop of an organization crumbling under pressure, crossing ethical boundaries, and placing people needlessly in danger.
For me, it was too much, and I left. Since then, in a leak of the script of Gibney’s film, WikiLeaks has posted that I sold them out for cash (nope), was a wanna-be spy who interviewed for MI5 (nope), and stole their data—including, bizarrely, my own copy of a gag order they asked me to sign to stop me speaking out on what I didn’t like.
Seeing yourself portrayed by WikiLeaks is like walking through a circus hall of mirrors: there’s just enough resemblance for you to recognize yourself, but you’re seriously distorted—and usually in a way that makes you look grotesque.
Many made their mind up on Julian Assange long ago—but here, for the record, is what really happened in those fateful few months.
The honeymoon phase was real: WikiLeaks and its partners were doing important work on revelatory documents, and the reaction against it was often abhorrent—Assange and WikiLeaks received death threats on U.S. television, were subject to blockades from the world’s biggest payment providers (Visa, Mastercard, and PayPal), and underwent U.S. grand-jury investigations.
The pressure and the stress were real, and needless. But the atmosphere of paranoia and defensiveness they created led to WikiLeaks committing serious misdeeds of its own—too serious to ignore.
One controversy provided the backdrop of all of WikiLeaks' activities during these months: Assange’s Swedish sex case. Two women accused Assange of sexual assaults, relating to either tearing a condom or initiating unprotected sex while his partner was sleeping.
Only three people know exactly what happened on the two nights that led to Assange’s prosecution, and it’s for the courts to establish more. It’s not for me or the media to judge Assange’s guilt. But the witness statements make it clear this was no set-up job: the accounts are messy, difficult, and the undisputed facts show a picture far more complex than a honey trap. That wasn’t enough to stop Assange—and members of his legal team, through insinuation—to set the ball rolling on three years of abuse, denigration, and suspicion against his two accusers.
One of the key instigations was this quote: “I’m not saying it was a honey trap. I’m not saying it was not a honey trap,” Assange told John Humphreys, the anchor of a major U.K. radio show, initiating an open season of speculation, abuse, death threats, and more against his accusers.
Whatever happened to those women three years ago, they’ve certainly gone through hell since.
As Assange was remanded in custody for a week in December 2010, Kristinn Hrafnsson, the silver-haired Icelandic journalist who is the second-most high-profile WikiLeaker, and I conferred on how to handle the media strategy, as every mainstream outlet ran the “Will WikiLeaks collapse without its founder?” story.
We agreed on a simple line: Julian was WikiLeaks’ founder and editor, and had its full support—but his court issues were a private matter, and we were getting on with publishing 251,000 embassy cables.
That line wasn’t acceptable to Julian. Within 24 hours, once he’d had word, he reversed it. Julian’s fight was WikiLeaks’ fight. This was a freedom-of-speech issue, not a sex-offense trial. We’d just have to live with it. Consequently, for the last three years, huge and significant Internet freedom issues have played second fiddle to one man’s melodrama.
All of that is distasteful. But it’s not why I quit.
The reason I quit was because of a friend of Julian’s whose activities were unstomachable and unforgivable. That man was Israel Shamir. Shamir is an anti-Semitic writer, a supporter of the dictator of Belarus, and a man with ties and friends in Russian security services. He and Julian—unknown to us—had been in friendly contact for years. It was a friendship that would have serious consequences.
Introduced to WikiLeaks staff and supporters under a false name, Shamir was given direct access to more than 90,000 of the U.S. Embassy cables, covering Russia, all of Eastern Europe, parts of the Middle East, and Israel. This was, for quite some time, denied by WikiLeaks. But that’s never a denial I’ve found convincing: the reason I know he has them is that I gave them to him, at Assange’s orders, not knowing who he was.
Why did this prove to be a grave mistake? Not just for Shamir’s views, which are easy to Google, but for what he did next. The first hints of trouble came through contacts from various Putin-influenced Russian media outlets. A pro-Putin outlet got in touch to say Shamir had been asking for $10,000 for access to the cables. He was selling the material we were working to give away free, to responsible outlets.
Worse was to come. The NGO Index on Censorship sent a string of questions and some photographic evidence, suggesting Shamir had given the cables to Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Europe’s last dictator. Shamir had written a pro-Belarus article, shortly before photos emerged of him leaving the interior ministry. The day after, Belarus’s dictator gave a speech saying he was establishing a WikiLeaks for Belarus, citing some stories and information appearing in the genuine (and then unpublished) cables.
Assange refused and blocked any attempts at investigation, and released public statements that were simply untrue.
Disturbingly, Assange seems to have a personal motivation for staying friendly with Shamir. Shamir’s son, Johannes Wahlstrom, is apparently being called as one of Assange’s defense witnesses in his Swedish trial. That’s not the only time self has come before principle.
On other occasions, Assange’s selfishness needlessly risked WikiLeaks financial future.
When first trying to gain bail money, Assange sought to empty WikiLeaks’ bank accounts to pay the cash (a scheme which would never have worked given the rules). But luckily for WikiLeaks, the trustees of the organization’s then-main bank account, the Wau Holland foundation, rightly refused the request, which would have all but cleared out the account. Given the duration of the banking blockade, that money eventually had to last around 18 months. Had Assange got his way, the money that got WikiLeaks through the blockade wouldn’t have been there.
The final straw was—as it always is—the attempted cover-up. In November 2010, WikiLeaks asked everyone who worked there to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) covering the material we were being given access to—not to sell it, disclose without permission, or similar. Given the importance of what we were working on, that seemed reasonable. Everyone, including me, signed.
By January, the situation had changed. With me and others concerned about what we saw as ethical lapses left, right, and center, Assange produced a new NDA, silencing anyone who signed it for a full decade against saying a word about WikiLeaks activities, on the pain of millions of dollars of penalties.
Faced with the bizarre situation of being asked to sign a gag order by a whistleblowing organization, I, alone, refused. Encouraged by Julian (I later learned), WikiLeaks staffers kept me up until 3 a.m. pressuring me to sign. Early the next morning, I awoke with Assange sat on my bed, pressuring me to sign—even before I was dressed. I held out, eventually left our remote location, and didn’t go back.
This is the mess you get into when you buy into the “noble lie,” as Julian willingly does.
Eventually, you’ve got to back your claims up. And that’s what is needed: people to really believe in the principles WikiLeaks supposedly stands for, rather than in a cartoon hero or villain figure.
The consequences of mistakes, of arrogance, of division, are all too real.
Assange isn’t entirely venal. His problem is “noble cause” corruption: behavior he’d rightly condemn in others, he excuses in himself, because he believes, at his core, he is the good guy.
Myself, I’m reminded of the conclusion of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: Julian Assange has become everything he originally, rightly, despised.
There is, though, one happier lesson from WikiLeaks, that is rightly highlighted in Gibney’s film: we haven’t paid enough attention to Bradley Manning. Manning is too easy to turn into a poster boy, an easy icon, a cause.
Manning the human is more complex, more flawed, more fascinating, and more inspiring.
Gibney’s focus on Manning’s flaws and conviction alike shows the human story at the center of WikiLeaks. It shows the need to support people like Manning.
And it shows that whistleblowers aren’t cartoon heroes made of different stuff to everyone else.
Anyone has the potential to do what Manning did: act on conscience to break the rules in a good cause. And because of that, despite the rows and betrayals, the WikiLeaks story remains one that can give everyone a lot of reason to hope.