HACKTIVISM

Laura Poitras Does Not Want to Talk About WikiLeaks and Russia

The Oscar-winning filmmaker (‘Citizenfour’) sits down with Marlow Stern to discuss ‘Risk’—her compelling, incredibly timely documentary on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

The first time I met Laura Poitras was at a coffee shop in downtown Manhattan. It was back in 2014, while she was doing the rounds promoting her spellbinding Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour. Poitras was understandably on high alert, having been detained at a number of airports in the wake of Snowden’s NSA revelations. I’d chosen a seat by the window—a decision she swiftly vetoed, opting for a seat in the rear of the caffeine emporium. She then proceeded to lecture me on the ins and outs of her CryptoPhone, taking the piss out of my pedestrian encryption.

Since then, Poitras has taken home a well-deserved Oscar and spearheaded the film journalism unit Field of Vision, which has raised her profile considerably. It has also heightened expectations for her latest documentary, Risk—a seven-years-in-the-making profile of controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

WikiLeaks has undergone a baffling transformation of late. The nonprofit publisher was embraced by the left when it exploded onto the scene in 2010 with its “Collateral Murder” video as well as the Afghan War Diary and Iraq War Logs—tens of thousands of classified internal U.S. military documents that shed light on America’s morally murky actions during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past two years, however, it’s been accused of scrubbing Russian documents from The Syria Files, curiously passed on publishing the Panama Papers (and later accused George Soros of architecting the leak), doxxed thousands of Turkish women, defended alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’ racist crusade against actress Leslie Jones, and engaged in overt anti-Semitism. If that weren’t enough, there is the matter of the Democratic National Committee leaks and the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta: two document dumps that helped sway the U.S. presidential election in favor of Donald Trump, and were believed to be orchestrated by the Kremlin.

At the heart of it all is Assange, an Australian ex-hacker who’s been rattling America’s cage since his teenage years, penetrating Pentagon and Department of Defense systems under the handle “Mendax.” Assange has been in the Ecuadorian Embassy since 2012, dodging a pair of sexual-assault allegations in Sweden as well as extradition threats from the United States—threats that were recently echoed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said that arresting Assange is “a priority” for the U.S. government.

Poitras’ documentary, in other words, couldn’t be more timely.

To get to Poitras’ office, you must first enter a nondescript building in Lower Manhattan. After you pass through a surprisingly thorough security check, ride the elevator, and navigate a series of hallways, you land at an unmarked door. Inside that door is the filmmaker-journalist’s office, a Spartan room consisting of assorted computers and tables. The walls are decorated with blown-up photos of drone strikes, a data signal with doppler tracks from a satellite titled ANARCHIST, and Edward Snowden’s 2015 New York Times op-ed: “The World Says No to Surveillance.”

“There has to be large reasons for what is in a documentary, because a documentary has to make sense when it’s released, and hopefully it still has meaning and relevance five years, 10 years later,” she tells me. “I don’t want to make films that are reactive. I want to make films that have meaning over time.”

We sit down together at a table in the center of her office and, over the course of an hour-plus, have a wide-ranging, oft-contentious discussion about Risk, WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

So I was supposed to see the film at a press screening on April 24 but was told it was canceled because you were still tinkering with the film.

Oh yeah, we canceled the press screening. I wasn’t “tinkering” with it, just to set the record straight. The attorney general of the United States came out with some pretty extreme threats directed at leakers in response to a question about WikiLeaks, so of course I had to include that. It would have been negligent not to include it.

You have done a lot of tinkering since its Cannes premiere, though. Quite a lot has happened since then.

[Laughs] That I’m gonna agree with. I’ve made some substantial changes since then. In the current version, the entire third act is new stuff that has happened since Cannes, including the presidential election.

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It’s mentioned in the film that Assange bore a grudge against you for the Snowden leaks. I found that interesting because we also saw Snowden come out in July criticizing the lack of curation in the DNC leaks. I’m curious how that rift started between you and Assange, and has there always been tension between Assange and Snowden?

I’m not going to speak to that. I will speak to—when I began working on this film I was a documentary filmmaker who was observing. And so the opening scene of the film, they’re making these phone calls and are very nervous about what’s happening because there’s a password that has been published by a journalist, and a lot of things are going to come out unredacted.

Poitras is referring to the diplomatic cables leak, consisting of 251,287 classified cable messages sent to the U.S. State Department from hundreds of countries around the globe. David Leigh of The Guardian accidentally published the encryption passphrase for the file in a book in February 2011, and was followed by the German magazine Der Freitag in August of that year. Shortly thereafter, all of the State Department cables were leaked online, completely unredacted.

But that phone call seemed disingenuous and almost for show. In that scene, they just go online to the State Department site and call the general hotline asking for Hillary Clinton.

They were worried. I can tell you that they were concerned about the potential fallout. But I was an observer so I was not thinking, “What would I do in this situation?” It never crossed my mind because I never thought I would ever be in that situation. I make documentaries, I don’t get contacted on a regular basis by anonymous sources—before then, that’s not something that happened. And then I found myself asking that question, and it did create some divisions, which is not that unexpected.

Because Snowden didn’t go with WikiLeaks for certain reasons.

Snowden made the choices he made. He didn’t go with WikiLeaks or The New York Times. He reached out to me and also Glenn [Greenwald] and had very specific reasons, and I was going to respect his reasons. He made the choices that he made. I think from Julian’s perspective, they did take enormous risks to secure Snowden’s asylum, to their credit. Sarah Harrison, in particular, took enormous risks.

Sarah Harrison is a WikiLeaks editor and Assange’s closest adviser. She also escorted Edward Snowden on a flight from Hong Kong to Moscow following the National Security Agency leaks, helping secure him political asylum. She is depicted in the film as Assange’s staunchest supporter, hanging on his every word.

Are they involved? Julian and Sarah Harrison? Everyone I’ve spoken with who’s seen the film has come away thinking as much.

Um… I’m… What’s in the film is all I’m going to say about that. I’m not going to say anything more than what is in the film. So… I mean there were these kinds of divisions, but I think it happened because I had been thrust into being a participant in this story, and they were too.

Do you think it had to do with Assange’s ego? That he couldn’t be associated with a leak that was, at that point, arguably more substantial than anything shared by WikiLeaks?

You can make whatever judgments you want to make. I think he had criticisms about why it was happening, and he’s allowed to have those criticisms. I’m on the board of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and I’d been to the Manning pretrial hearing, and the sentencing of Chelsea Manning happened at the same time as the Snowden leaks, and there was this crazy mainstream narrative that was constantly comparing the two in this good/bad way. And that sort of division was, to me, a really complicated one because I feel there’s so much continuum between the risks and choices that these two whistleblowers made, and an approach to adversarial journalism that Glenn and I share, and that probably Julian shares. There’s a lot of continuity there, but the narrative was this divide. And that’s coming from a mainstream media that feels threatened by these outsiders who are breaking news, and then they create this narrative.

One thing I enjoyed about the documentary is how much it focuses on the sexual-assault allegations, because that tends to be treated like an afterthought in media coverage of Assange. Why did you feel that needed to be made a focal point of the documentary?

OK I’m going to unpack it a little bit…

Poitras exhales, and takes a very long pause. So I feel compelled to chime in.

Because there’s a lot in the film about the toxic culture of these places, especially when you talk about Jacob Appelbaum and his sexual-assault allegations.

Ok, I’m going to unpack it. First of all, let’s separate prevalent sexism in these communities versus crimes. Those are different things here. Let me also say that Julian has asylum for political reasons. Ecuador gave him asylum not because of the Swedish investigation, but because of threats from the U.S. That’s why he has political asylum, so they’re not necessarily conflated. The reason I’m focusing on it in the film is, after the screening I did last year at Cannes, these new allegations came forward [against Appelbaum]. And I knew I had a film that I couldn’t release as it was, so then that gave me two choices: Do I walk away from the film? Or do I address more directly questions around sexism and abuse in this community?

It’s a complicated thing to address, because I do actually believe in due process. In the Swedish cases, there haven’t been charges filed, and I don’t think social media is the place where anyone’s guilt or innocence should be determined. With that said, I also think that attitudes or behavior that’s abusive or discriminatory should be addressed or challenged within any community, and in the case of what happened with Jacob Appelbaum, that the Tor Project really failed to address that they had a problem in the workplace, and that then spilled over. When the allegations came out, and I decided that I was going to incorporate them, I knew that I needed to address it more directly.

Jacob Appelbaum was a WikiLeaks representative and core member of the Tor Project. In the film, he is depicted cutting Assange’s hair, engaging in intimate conversations with Assange, and delivering fiery speeches on behalf of WikiLeaks. He has collaborated with Poitras on art projects, and appeared in ‘Citizenfour.’ In the film, Poitras admits to having a prior relationship with Appelbaum in 2014, and that he was later abusive to someone close to her. On May 25, 2016, a little over a week after ‘Risk’ premiered at Cannes, Appelbaum stepped down from the Tor Project following a series of sexual-assault allegations. On June 4, a website appeared featuring harrowing, anonymous accounts from many of Appelbaum’s alleged victims. Several of the people behind the stories later came forward and revealed their identities. Appelbaum has not been charged with a crime.

Did you consider killing the film because you had a prior relationship with one of your subjects, Jacob Appelbaum?

I thought about, do I really want to take on the questions around… there’s a backlash and sort of a viciousness, and do I want to walk into a world of internet trolls? No, I don’t. But I felt like I couldn’t just walk away from it; that both the film and the issue were too important.

Both cases—Assange and Appelbaum—involve intimate partner violence, which is a more complex form of sexual abuse.

And let’s just say that what we’re talking about are allegations. Both subjects in the film have declared and expressed that they’re innocent. But what I think is in the film, or what I was able to attest to, are Julian’s own words more generally around gender—which I think, in and of themselves, I find disturbing. People are allowed to say whatever they want, but I found some of his opinions that are expressed disturbing, as a woman.

There is a particularly damning scene in ‘Risk’ in which Assange is seen sitting on a couch and discussing the Swedish allegations with one of his lawyers, Helena Kennedy. She cautions him to use less forceful language when addressing the allegations, and he proceeds to brush it off as a “feminist conspiracy” that’s ensnared him, saying, “It’s just a thoroughly tawdry, radical, feminist political positioning thing. It’s some stereotype.” Kennedy is aghast.

Right. There is one scene in particular on the couch where he’s talking to one of his lawyers, and is basically alluding to a feminist conspiracy ensnaring him.

Yeah. So I find that framing disturbing. Personally as a woman, I don’t see that there’s any incentive to bring forward allegations in this kind of [case], so I do think that kind of dismissive approach is not helpful.

Because I remember him calling this a “honey trap.” And most people probably don’t know that these two women who have accused Assange of sexual assault were supporters of WikiLeaks, and they had a lot of mutual friends with Assange. The narrative that was painted by Assange and WikiLeaks was that two random Swedish women seduced him and then this whole thing happened, which reads like a plot out of an espionage novel.

Right. I think that’s… yeah. An effort to maybe… Yeah. Whatever.

Your film begins with Julian discussing the sexual-assault allegations against him and railing against a feminist conspiracy of sorts, and then ends with Hillary Clinton losing the presidency to Donald Trump. So when you bookend your film in such a manner, do you see connective tissue there?

No. I don’t see connective tissue. First of all, look who you’re talking to. When have I ever said anything positive about Hillary Clinton? I mean, she was a horrible candidate. She was up against a more horrible candidate. But no. Julian’s been super consistent from when he started the organization to the publications he’s done.

There’s something poetic about that though, right? To start your film with that conspiracy theory and end with the first female candidate for president losing?

Not from my perspective. It ends with him publishing things that were newsworthy! Like, come on! Can we be a little more subtle in our analysis?

It ended with WikiLeaks posting things that were newsworthy, but it also ended with them pushing ridiculous conspiracy theories like “spirit cooking,” which they tweeted about.

But that’s a different… The film’s not about their Twitter account. But I hear you.

But Assange runs the account. You see him throughout the film tweeting from the WikiLeaks Twitter account. Anyway, I just found that bookending sort of poetic. I know you’re not the biggest fan of Hillary Clinton.

Yeah. I find Hillary Clinton completely corrupt and unelectable, so I’m not surprised. When the story about the private server broke, I was like, yeah. This was a deliberate attempt and very cynical effort to avoid any kind of transparency. But this isn’t the focus of the film.

I want to go back to the Jacob Appelbaum stuff, because you disclose in the film that you two had a prior relationship. Did you meet while filming Citizenfour? Because you say in the film that your relationship was in 2014, the year of that film’s release.

When I was editing. Yeah. I was sort of pretty much… Yeah. I was editing.

There’s a very brief reference in the film you make about him harassing a friend of yours.

I’ll quote what’s in it: It’s that he was abusive toward somebody close to me. And it was something that I confronted him about when it happened.

Was he ever abusive toward you?

I’m not going to answer that. I mean, really, I put in the film what was relevant—what I knew, and what I felt, as a filmmaker, I had an obligation to disclose, and also the insight that I had, which is what’s in the film. And the way this unfolded is really disturbing. I just don’t think that the internet is equipped to… um… whatever, just in terms of the due process.

Isn’t there something ironic about that, though? When you’re talking about WikiLeaks?

Yeah, you can draw that comparison. And let me just say: I am a defender of the work that WikiLeaks does, and the risks they’ve taken. I don’t agree with all of their choices but I defend their journalism. What I don’t defend is any abusive behavior or discriminatory behavior like that. I just don’t defend it. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t support the work that they do. And I absolutely believe that everyone should have due process; so one of the reasons I felt it was worth continuing to work on the film was to talk about this, right? To say, hey, guess what, it’s not OK in workplaces.

Were you ever tempted, when you saw all these accusers coming out against Jacob in June, to come out with the story of what happened to you, or your friend? Because the details of those stories haven’t come out yet, right?

Yeah. That’s not my story to tell.

OK. I want to talk about WikiLeaks and Russia. There isn’t one major piece of damning evidence linking Assange and WikiLeaks to Russia, but there are tons of things that connect them to Russia. So shouldn’t it stand to reason that the public should be very skeptical of this relationship? They reportedly omitted a $2.4 billion transfer from Central Bank of Syria to the Russian-owned VTB Bank in The Syria Files.

I don’t know that report. That redaction… I haven’t verified it, so I can’t comment on it.

Another strange thing was how WikiLeaks was so critical of the Panama Papers, which implicated Vladimir Putin.

I don’t speak for Julian. I’m not going to speak for Julian, and I know sort of more broadly that he’s always been critical of any publication of large data sets that involves any kind of curating or redactions.

The anonymous leaker behind the Panama Papers informed The Guardian last May that he’d approached WikiLeaks numerous times—without success. The leaker also spoke with the Center for Public Integrity, whose International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released the Panama Papers, and confirmed that WikiLeaks had passed on the documents. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin came out and publicly denied “any element of corruption,” while also making the unsubstantiated claim that “WikiLeaks has showed us that official people and official organs of the U.S. are behind this.”

But the Panama Papers were offered up to WikiLeaks multiple times before the ICIJ.

OK, that I did not know. That I don’t have insight into. I can’t speak to that.

Can we talk about how they haven’t really printed anything critical of an oppressive regime like Russia? You don’t find that curious? And that he hosted a show on RT at a time of great financial turmoil?

[Laughs] I’m not gonna get cornered into saying, like… I mean, can we talk about what’s actually in the film?

I know, but this is contextual stuff, isn’t it? The RT show happened right when Visa and MasterCard stopped transfers to WikiLeaks—which is mentioned in the film.

Yeah, but like… [sigh] I mean, I don’t know…

How does that not constitute Russia essentially laundering money to WikiLeaks if RT is paying Assange for hosting an RT show right when Visa and MasterCard turn off the faucets?

Wait a second. I get paid by whomever—Showtime or PBS—but is that money laundering?

Those media companies aren’t state-owned—and owned by a shady regime like Russia.

Yeah, but a lot of journalists work for news organizations where they’re not necessarily aligned with the owners of those companies.

But you’re comparing those to RT? That’s not nearly the same thing. And Assange even stated in the early days of WikiLeaks how he wanted to expose corruption in oppressive regimes like China and Russia as much as the U.S. But then: crickets.

I mean, go ahead and report whatever you want to report.

I’m sure you read the New York Times story published in August about how Assange’s and WikiLeaks’ leaks always seem to benefit Russia.

Can we talk about the film that I made?

But this is in the news right now, isn’t it? You must have read the story.

I think we’re going to talk about the film that I made.

You don’t want to talk about that? Because Assange has also said that he considers Russia a “bulwark against Western imperialism.” But you don’t want to talk about the Russia stuff? I mean, it’s the end of your movie, isn’t it?

What’s the end of the movie is the election, which includes the assessment that it is a Russian hack that used an intermediary to submit it to WikiLeaks.

So you don’t think it’s relevant to talk about WikiLeaks and Russia?

I’m not saying it’s irrelevant, but I’m here to talk about the movie. Like, let’s have a conversation either about the facts around the election, which I’m happy to talk about, but there is this kind of larger propaganda/conspiracy stuff that I don’t actually want to wade into.

But there’s propaganda, and then there are the things that I’ve mentioned, which are actual things that happened that raise serious red flags.

So tell me your theory. What’s your theory? And what’s the evidence for the theory?

My theory is that there is a relationship between WikiLeaks and Russia, from RT paying multiple visits to the Ecuadorian Embassy to visit Assange, to Assange hosting a show on the RT at a time of great financial turmoil, to omitting documents that hurt Russia in The Syria Files, to passing on—and then criticizing—the Panama Papers.

But what is the end result? Are you saying WikiLeaks is a front? It’s a front?

No, I’m just saying that Assange and WikiLeaks are fairly staunch supporters of Russia. I mean, he hosted a show on RT. And I’ll just leave you with this quote from Assange, that Russia is “a bulwark against Western imperialism.” Those are his words, so I think that’s what he believes. And I don’t know how close his relationship is with the Kremlin, but I think that he’s been a pretty staunch proponent of Russia. When you look at The Syria Files, there aren’t too many damning documents in there on Russia—which is very strange considering Assad’s cozy relationship with Russia, and Putin. That suggests that Assange is redacting or omitting files to cover Russia—like the $2.4 billion transfer I mentioned.

[Laughs] Go do that reporting. Go ahead, I’d love for you to do that reporting. The question I have, and I don’t know if anyone has answered it, is: Was he being played or not being played? Did he know or not know? He could have been being played. But I also think the other question that you need to ask is: Do you think the DNC emails are not newsworthy? And the Podesta emails?

No, I thought they were newsworthy. But you referred to WikiLeaks as “journalism” and Assange as a “journalist” several times during your talk last night.

I attended the New York premiere of Poitras’ ‘Risk’ at The Whitney Museum in New York on April 30. Following the screening, which was attended by the likes of Alex Gibney, Poitras held a Q&A moderated by author Teju Cole.

As opposed to…?

A publisher.

Well, I also said publisher.

But those two things aren’t the same. And I’m curious to know what you think makes them journalists versus a publisher? Because they don’t edit really, so where does the journalism come into play?

OK, I’m trying to think of what I said last night, but I think I referred to them as a “publisher,” and their work is protected under the First Amendment as protected speech.

But do you consider Assange a journalist?

I believe that their publishing has, yeah, been journalistic. So do I think that their publication is journalistic? Yeah. And led to really important stories in the past decade since they’ve started? Yeah, I do. So you think they’re not? What is your opinion?

I think they’re a publisher. I think they’re a conduit. Some of their aims are “journalistic,” e.g. exposing corruption, but I think that the lack of curation and editing is what makes them not journalists. Just publishing documents doesn’t make you a journalist. Any hacker could just get ahold of leaked documents and publish them online. That doesn’t make them a journalist.

I don’t think I agree with that. I think that they also provide analysis of what they publish. Look, I do believe that they’re doing journalism.

OK, let’s talk about the election. It’s fascinating, because there’s the DNC leaks and then there’s the Podesta leaks, which I think caused considerably more damage. WikiLeaks teased the Podesta leaks—calling it an “October surprise”—at a conference on Oct. 4 in Berlin, and around that time Trump operative Roger Stone gets wind of it, prior to the dump. But what are you thinking as a filmmaker as these emails are trickling out? Were you almost done with the film and like fuck, now I have to go back in and tinker with it?

[Laughs] No, I was still working on the film.

Did you try to get ahold of Roger Stone for your documentary?

No, I didn’t.

There is a moment in the film where Assange is talking about the election over the phone, and he seems to have more negative things to say about Hillary than Trump, who he paints as more of a wild card. Why did you feel the need to include that scene in the movie, and what do you think it communicates?

Because it was obviously relevant to the film and I also think his opinion about both shows that he doesn’t think either of them are good candidates, and I think he’s assessing them, and that conversation was happening in newsrooms—I’m sure it happened in your newsroom—of, “This is what we have, this is what we know, this is how we’re going to cover it.”

Were you shooting him during the election?

No.

When did you stop shooting him, and did your relationship sever to the point where he didn’t want you shooting him?

So I stopped filming after the NSA stories because I actually couldn’t travel to the U.K. It wasn’t a good idea.

Now do you just show TSA your Oscar at the airport? That doesn’t let you through?

[Laughs] No. But I couldn’t travel. And then I thought I had one film, and I realized that both stories aren’t going to work, and then I didn’t know what was going to happen to the other material, and then I returned to it and filmed again with him last year. The scene that you see on the phone was shot for the film; I just wasn’t there.

There’s been a surreal right-wing embrace of WikiLeaks. Sean Hannity even embraced them in the wake of the Podesta leaks.

Totally surreal. And we saw it swing from the Democratic convention, where the left was outraged over the Sanders stuff, and then you have the right embracing it, and now you have the Trump administration issuing direct threats [to WikiLeaks]. I think it says that WikiLeaks is pretty consistent, and they’ve been embraced or vilified depending on what they’re publishing.

But they didn’t publish anything on Trump.

So you think they’re sitting on top of Trump’s tax returns and not releasing them? They have a submission system—an anonymous submission system—that people can submit to, and what they publish I think largely has to do with what is submitted to them.

So you think it’s a coincidence that they didn’t publish anything on Trump?

I mean, come on. I’m not going to get into all that crazy conspiracy stuff.

Well, he seemed like the far more troubling candidate, so if you call yourselves “journalists” or “activists,” as WikiLeaks does, then why are you only publishing documents that harm Hillary Clinton?

But the documents that they publish are the documents that they receive.

But Assange has been openly hostile to Hillary Clinton for a number of years, and was far more vocal in his opposition to Hillary Clinton than Trump during the election.

So your theory is that he had damaging things on Trump that he didn’t publish.

I don’t know about that. My theory is that he wouldn’t have published them even if he got them.

I think that shows a lack of understanding about Julian. I really do.

So, I had a different view of WikiLeaks prior to the events of the last few years because there’s a world of difference between publishing documents from independent whistleblowers and publishing documents from a hostile state actor. Doesn’t that take you into far different territory? Because then you are publishing propaganda from a state actor.

I’m going to agree with you that it poses all kinds of concerns. I also would say that—so the allegations we know of that have been made is that an intermediary was the person who submitted them, and Julian has denied that that person is a state actor. And the way that the submission system works is it’s anonymous. I can’t speak for Julian as to whether that’s true or not. But I think you also have to assess the news value of the information that you have, if you believe it to be true. An anonymous envelope could come to you tomorrow—for instance, Trump’s tax returns could come to you tomorrow—with no return address. What are you going to do?

Not what Rachel Maddow did.

[Laughs] That’s a good one.

No, we would take some time to verify them and then if they checked out I bet we’d publish them.

OK, so you’re saying you’d publish them? Trump’s tax returns come to you, you verify them, they’re true, and you publish them. You know where I’m going with this, right? And you don’t know who the source is, and you’ve verified them.

That’s not a good analogy. A better one would be if I received Trump’s tax returns in the mail from an anonymous source, but that I had a very long and deep pre-existing relationship with the Hillary Clinton camp, and if I had been paid by Hillary Clinton to host a show on a network controlled by Hillary Clinton, and I had omitted files that harmed Hillary Clinton in leaks. It’s totally different when there are so many connections between the head of the organization and the alleged actor in this versus me being me and just randomly receiving leaked documents in the mail. And the Panama Papers is one of the crazier examples, because I can’t for the life of me understand why they passed on them.

I haven’t done the reporting on that so I’m not going to comment on that, but it surprises me that they wouldn’t. So I would say, were there conditions? It surprises me, because Julian is interested in disclosing information. But you still haven’t answered my question. So you’d publish those tax returns because they’re newsworthy, and you’ve verified them?

Sure, probably.

But I’m just saying, you wouldn’t know if that was a source trying to destroy Trump, a state actor or a whistleblower. You don’t know.

But they’re tax returns. Nobody can be harmed by publishing tax returns, and they weren’t obtained by hacking. Plus, I don’t think that’s a very good analogy as I already laid out.

But come on, the Pentagon Papers were obtained by violating the law because [Daniel Ellsberg] believed the public had a right to know what the U.S. government was doing during the Vietnam War. So you’re not going to publish the Pentagon Papers?

Well, it’s a case-by-case basis. And like Snowden said, there needs to be some curation done to make sure nobody innocent gets hurt. I mean, look at their Turkey dump. And when you look at the way they treated the Podesta emails, you need to weigh the atmosphere, and right now it’s very ripe with conspiracy theorists. Alex Jones is mainstream.

[Laughs] I’m gathering that from this interview.

Come on, I don’t think I’ve said anything too conspiratorial. I’ve just listed a bunch of things that actually happened. But they published all the Podesta emails and then they pushed “spirit cooking” in a pair of tweets. So when you look at stuff like that, there’s not only a lack of curation but a fueling of conspiracy theories. And I don’t see any difference between WikiLeaks tweeting about “spirit cooking” and whatever the hell Louise Mensch is doing right now.

[Laughs] OK, OK.

What do you think people will take away from the documentary when it comes to Assange? The film really does seem to separate the odious man from his mission, while also tackling the effects of power.

I want it to be a complex, nuanced rendering of the organization and the people in it without pulling punches. People are going to come away with different opinions. I’m not interested in reductive descriptions; I’m interesting in something far more complex. I think Julian is somebody who has changed the landscape around how journalism works right now. He understood the nature of these large leaks before they actually happened—or the need for anonymous mechanisms for sources. I hope that the film communicates this. I felt a certain sense of optimism in 2011 that I’m not feeling today. I’m horrified by the current political state, how the internet’s being used, how things are being gamed, and how governments are collecting information. This is horrible and not a reality that I’m thrilled about. I think it’s really scary.