Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney responds in full to my critical review of his film on WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning, “We Steal Secrets”

On May 24, 2013, I reviewed Alex Gibney’s WikiLeaks/Bradley Manning film ‘We Steal Secrets,’ focusing on its portrayal of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Read that review here. Alex Gibney wrote me a letter in response, reprinted in full below:

Dear Nathan:

I read your recent review of “We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks.”

I have great respect for the work that you have done and continue to do on behalf of Bradley Manning.  With that in mind, let me express my disagreement with a number of your assertions about my film.  I do not expect you to share my views, but I would hope that you hear them.

You criticize the filmmaking team for failing to wait for Bradley Manning’s spoken statement to the court.  The film was completely finished, including final digital and film elements, in February. However, in light of some revelations in the Manning statement, we were able to make some small changes in the audio track – at great expense and technical difficulty – without changing picture.  We had been working on the film for more than two years and made a decision to bring it to a conclusion.  We did so, not because the story was finished (we fully expect you and others to continue to follow and tell the story) but because we felt that – with Assange and Manning both in very different kinds of custody – we could conclude a chapter.

Our film focuses on events in 2010 and 2011.  In that context, Bradley Manning’s on-line chats are more relevant than his very moving speech to the court.  I also felt that showing the on-line chats as printed text was important to the character of this story. Those chats reveal Manning’s views in the moment rather than as a carefully considered speech looking back on events with the benefit of hindsight.  Yet, I would also note – as Glenn Greenwald has done – that Manning’s speech is remarkably consistent with the Lamo chats, both for his personal concerns and for his political convictions.

To that point, Nathan, I must take issue with your characterization of the film.  You imply that, with one exception, the film does not include any mention of Manning’s political convictions. That just isn’t true.  There is a great deal about Manning’s motivations as a whistleblower in the film, not only from his chats but also from materials he appended to the original leak of the war logs.

Here are two short examples.  1) “This is possibly one of the most significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare.”  2) “I want people to see the truth…regardless of who they are.  Because without that information you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

You link to the “annotated transcript” released by WikiLeaks.  But you do not note that this so-called “transcript” contains a multitude of errors.  In addition to including words that aren’t in the film, the “transcript” actually omits every single one of Manning’s words as they appeared on-screen.  One is left to conclude that this “transcript” has either been maliciously edited to make it look like we omitted Manning, or so sloppily done that it just left his words out. That, in itself, is a kind of cruel poetry: WikiLeaks has written Bradley Manning out of the story.

I also disagree with the way that your review omitted the full context of Manning’s speech to the court.  In a forthright way, he does discuss his alienation from those around him. He uses the following phrases: “I lacked close personal ties…” ;“concerns of social labeling”; his roomate’s “discomfort with my sexual orientation”; “immense pressures and anxiety built up throughout the deployment.”  And this key sentence: “It seems that as I tried harder to fit in at work, the more I seemed to alienate my peers and lose the respect, trust, and support I needed.” Does that sound like someone who was carefree?  You imply that Manning was not “alienated” prior to his leaks, only after.  Manning’s own speech to the court belies that view.

I disagree with your contention (raised initially by one of Assange’s legal team) that the film tries to “pathologize Manning’s leaks.” The film does not embrace the army’s view that Manning leaked because of some character flaw; it clearly shows his political motivations.  But neither does the film ignore Manning’s emotional distress.  Why should we ignore issues that Manning himself went to such great lengths to express?

The film does not make any general statement about “the way that whistleblowers behave.”  But it does suggest – via Manning’s own words – that he was alienated from those around him.  Why should that be controversial?  If Manning was perfectly in tune with the culture around him, he never would have leaked the materials.  After all, he broke a military oath when he did what he did. Indeed, he has pleaded guilty to breaking that oath and is willing to be held to account for violating military law.

I accept that, for Manning, questioning his own gender was a serious matter.  I accept that his difficulty with being gay in the military during a time of “don’t ask don’t tell” was of great personal concern.  I don’t see any value in censoring that part of Manning’s life just because for some (but not for me) those deep personal concerns may interfere with a more air-brushed narrative about his role as a political actor.

In your review, you suggest that Manning’s supervisor, Jihrleah Showman, should not have been included in the film because she is a witness for the prosecution in Manning’s military trial.  Sorry, but I’m not going to apologize for including people who were intimately involved in the story.   Further, for a film that attempts to do more than preach to the choir, how would the film be received by those who cannot decide what to think of Manning if I did not include any critical voices?  I think that Bradley Manning would agree that the truth – no matter how inconvenient – is the most important thing.  That truth cannot be glimpsed if we avert our eyes from those with whom we might disagree.

I don’t have any issue with the fact that Manning is gay.  I don’t have any issue with the fact that he wanted to become a woman.  Why should anyone?  However, at a time when Manning is being scapegoated by the military, I do think it’s important to note that the military bears some responsibility for the leak, both for the sloppy way classified material is managed and for the failure, by the chain of command, to take note of Manning’s emotional outbursts.   My political science professor advised me to “embrace the contradictions of everyday life.”  So, in the case of Manning, one can applaud the value of the leaks and still find fault with the military for ignoring the system and individuals that permitted them.  Now that Manning is about to go on trial for “aiding the enemy” should we not hold the military to account for some of what he did?  Or would you prefer that Manning be seen in isolation – and therefore greater legal jeopardy – from the system of which he was a part?

Your review also leaves out an important mystery at the heart of the story: why – if the WikiLeaks electronic dropbox was such a perfect mechanism for anonymous leaking – did Bradley Manning reach out to Adrian Lamo?   It seems clear that Manning needed someone to talk to.  And he needed to talk, not only about the leaks but about his personal pain and, yes, alienation, as a gay man wanting to be a woman in a time of “don’t ask don’t tell.”

This is a vital issue as we confront how leaks may happen in the future.  One flaw of the WikiLeaks model (important in other ways) may be that it does not allow for needed personal communication between a source and a journalist/publisher. I know from personal experience that whistleblowers sometimes need someone to talk to. (Why should that be controversial or a sign of weakness instead of a show of humanity?)  We now know from Manning that he felt let down by the on-line character of “Nathaniel Frank” (the person at WikiLeaks that Manning believed to be Julian Assange) because the conversations between them “were more valued by myself [Manning] than Nathaniel.”  When “Nathaniel” was no longer available to talk to (possibly because WikiLeaks now had the State Department cables in its possession) Manning turned to Lamo, who then turned him in.

The larger point that the film is making is that Manning is a hero precisely because he is not an abstract symbol. He is a unique, flawed and ultimately inspiring individual who can be celebrated for who he is, not altered and re-imagined in order to score easy political points or to soothe the discomfort that some seem to feel toward Manning’s emotional turmoil.

Going forward, it will be important that whistleblowers do not have to believe that they must be extraordinary or perfect heroes.  They can be what the social psychologist Phil Zimbardo calls “everyday heroes.”  They can and should be anybody.

Let us reckon with Bradley Manning as an individual and all that he did.

And let us all support him – every bit of him – as he faces a furious government determined to convict him of a capital offense for trying to make the world a better place.

Alex Gibney

Attached, please find a relevant excerpt from Bradley Manning’s statement to the court:

As the communications transferred from IRC to the Jabber client, I gave ‘office’ and later ‘pressassociation’ the name of Nathaniel Frank in my address book, after the author of a book I read in 2009.

After a period of time, I developed what I felt was a friendly relationship with Nathaniel. Our mutual interest in information technology and politics made our conversations enjoyable. We engaged in conversation often. Sometimes as long as an hour or more. I often looked forward to my conversations with Nathaniel after work.

The anonymity that was provided by TOR and the Jabber client and the WLO’s policy allowed me to feel I could just be myself, free of the concerns of social labeling and perceptions that are often placed upon me in real life. In real life, I lacked a closed friendship with the people I worked with in my section, the S2 section.

In my section, the S2 section and supported battalions and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team as a whole. For instance, I lacked close ties with my roommate to his discomfort regarding my perceived sexual orientation. Over the next few months, I stayed in frequent contact with Nathaniel. We conversed on nearly a daily basis and I felt that we were developing a friendship.

Conversations covered many topics and I enjoyed the ability to talk about pretty much anything, and not just the publications that the WLO was working on. In retrospect I realize that that these dynamics were artificial and were valued more by myself than Nathaniel. For me these conversations represented an opportunity to escape from the immense pressures and anxiety that I experienced and built up through out the deployment. It seems that as I tried harder to fit in at work, the more I seemed to alienate my peers and lose the respect, trust, and support I needed.

5 thoughts on “Alex Gibney’s response to my ‘We Steal Secrets’ review”

  1. This might have a deal more conviction if you had not also made the statement:

    ‘ I think it raises big issues about who whistleblowers are, because they are alienated people who don’t get along with people around them, which motivates them to do what they do’

    That is an incredibly simplistic, breathtakingly sweeping (and in my opinion, deeply flawed) statement.

    I think you should take a long look at what you are saying there, because as it stands it is very revealing of an incorrect deduction you are making which is (at least) implicit in your film, and which people are responding to in your portrayal of Brad.

    No-one is suggesting that whistleblowers are not complex people just like the rest of humanity, and that, to some extent, this may be of interest, though in a short film attempting to be a ‘documentary’ covering a vast subject and involving many people, this is of much less relevance than what actually DOES motivate them. And, in Bradley’s case THAT has been quite clear since we had the chat logs because there he clearly stated his motivation.

    You may well not get an argument on the fact that whistleblowers stand out and are unusual, both before and after their ‘whistleblowing’, and there are reasons for this which are well worth highlighting. And these reasons as to why whistleblowers are unusual are particularly worth highlighting because they DO shed light on motivation.

    What REALLY characterises whistleblowers? It’s pretty obvious. And it’s not ‘alienation’.

    They may even be people who feel alienated – there are not a lot of people, after all, who live so closely by their principles – though I would take issue with the phrase ‘alienated people’ which surely describes a pathological condition. Unless an individual is unable to form relationships at all – and this, we know is absolutely NOT the case with Bradley – I would say that their alienation or otherwise depends on the company they’re in.

    In the chat logs and also very briefly in his 28th Feb statement to the court, Bradley does, it is true, discuss his distress but this is NOT RELATED BY HIM in any way TO HIS MOTIVATION.

    And it seems wholly disingenuous to ignore what HE ACTUALLY SAYS about his motivation and decide that really it was ‘alienation’ which done the deed..


  2. Wow. Gibney is a piece of work.
    1) he complains that Bradleys speech in court was too late to include in the film, as if budgetary & deadline concerns were paramount over fairly and accurately portraying the subject matter. He acts as if it would have been a favour to someone if they’d taken that speech into account. Well, no Mr Gibney, what that speech did was utterly contradict one of the most significant and dangerous narratives running through your film; that of Wikileaks & Julian Assange having ‘coerced’ Manning to release the documents. In his speech to court, Manning clearly stated that was not the case, yet your film pushes this idea in exactly the way the state department wants, in preparation for its case against Wikileaks.
    Additionally, why is Gibney so concerned with budget? The film was financed by Universal, who clearly could afford it, regardless, in his letter, Gibney both claims it couldn’t be done AND admits to having edited the films audio in the same time period. Above it all, he should have delayed release of the film, rather than let it go out there with such an egregiously manipulative narrative.
    2) He keeps making a big deal out of the Wikileaks transcript omitting Mannings words, which the film displayed, without comment or extrapolation, as text slides. Well, this complaint is limp, Mannings words did not need addressing, correcting or critiquing, so of course the Wikileaks transcript didn’t address them. The transcript did, however, include several direct quotes from Manning & referenced him in their rebuttals, so they were not keeping Manning out of the story, as Gibney claims. He uses this deflection so he doesn’t have to address the actual points of contention within that transcript.
    3) all of this justification of the focus on Mannings personal strife is redundant. Even if he was the most messed up, confused, depressed person in the world, his personal situation is insignificant next to the magnitude of the things he was uncovering, the tip of an iceberg that the MSM continues to be too scared to go near, and movies like We Steal Secrets can be clearly seen as the psyop that they are. Gibney knows nothing of his trial and does not care about the wider implications of his part in this attempt to colour public opinion on a matter so significant to the elites who oppose Wikileaks, that they will fund cinema to make sure the story plays out the way they want. Next up will be The Fifth Estate, based on a book by the guy who sold out Wikileaks & removed their source protection capabilities, whilst utterly failing to make operational his own Wikileaks alternative, ‘OpenLeaks’, which still remains dormant.
    Daniel Domsheitberg pimped out a secure url of the unredacted cablegate file, for social capital. His actions, along with those of David Leigh of the Guardian, led to the unredacted cables becoming public.


  3. as a gay man wanting to be a woman

    This is the angle that I take the most issue with. Being trans is not the same thing as being “extra super gay” and these two things are continually conflated — particularly by Gibney’s team.

    People should really educate themselves before spending two years making a documentary who has a trans person as one of its main subjects.


  4. Alternate Title: Shifty Rationalizer Explains Away Interpretive Prevarications

    Some would consider it the height of the movie maker’s art to involve the viewer before they’ve entered the theater. As others who see themselves at that pinnacle, Mr Gibney’s docudrama of misinformation and obfuscation begins the moment you hear the title. Nominally about secret information and how leaks can change lives, the movie is actually a plain and simple admonition to the world that Alex Gibney should be kowtowed to every time he might be generous enough to extend to you the opportunity, lest you earn his scorn as Mr Assange did.


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