As I write this on 21st August at around 3.30pm, somewhere around Fort Meade in Maryland USA, Bradley Manning has been led away to begin a thirty-five year jail sentence. He has been in jail, before being found guilty, for three years already.
Elsewhere, in an undisclosed location in Russia, Edward Snowden lives in exile on a temporary asylum visa, declared a persona non gratis by most mature western democracies and hounded by American intelligence and prosecutorial services.
Finally, Julian Assange lives ensconced in a small room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, decried by the American government as an international criminal.
The primary reason for the fate of these three men? The dissemination of confidential information. This issue has sparked many controversial debates over transparency versus security, and is the main selling point of Alex Gibney’s documentary ‘We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks’ (which, I should point out, does not cover Edward Snowden as the film was produced prior to those headlines).
In one sense, the film portrays a very traditional plotline – it is the tale of a rise and fall of the flawed protagonist. We meet Assange as an improbably pale youth, the archetypal outsider with a prodigious hacking talent. We follow his development into a “John Lennon-like revolutionary”. Then we watch as Assange succumbs to hubris and egoism and we are led to believe that he has been entirely corrupted by his rise to prominence.
If Assange is the almost protagonist in this narrative, then Manning is the tragic foil. ‘We Steal Secrets’ is most compelling as a portrait of the ex-soldier. Narrated almost entirely through chat transcripts, we watch the deeply troubled information analyst confront his sexuality, gender identity doubts and moral misgivings about the war in Afghanistan. Despite the grim ending, we are shown that heroism can flourish in the unlikeliest of places.
As a character study, the documentary is very successful. Whilst Assange and Manning lack the rogue-ish, macho charm of the traditional hero, the documentary holds within it the romantic allure of the shadowy world of information leaking. The modern day outlaw is no Butch Cassidy figure. Rather we must look to the bleached, blinking-in-the-sunlight faces of slight, bespectacled figures such as Manning. Outlaws no longer live framed by dramatic landscapes and riding into sunsets, but dwell in anonymous chat rooms and have important, yet little-discussed jobs in large organisations.
Nonetheless, ‘We Steal Secrets’ is unfortunately incomplete because it fails to get to grips with the moral issue of leaking. The film barely seems to cover this side of the issue, instead preferring to focus on the individual characters. Whilst viewing the documentary, I worry that we have lost perspective on why this saga was of any interest in the first place. Individual characters are not the true heart of the issue; rather the lifeblood of the controversy is information. Information which affects every one of us.
The danger is that focusing on the quirks and lives of Assange and Manning trivialises the issue. Manning’s psychological fragility and tender naivety and Assange’s bravado and narcissism are not relevant. These facts might well all add up to a fascinating human interest story, but the ethics of whistleblowing require much deeper thought than instinctive feelings of sympathy or distaste for a particular character. By sympathising with Manning and not engaging with the wider debate about transparency, we leave him as an empty martyr who stands for nothing.
Indeed, as ‘We Steal Secrets’ chooses to focus on characters rather than principles, it seems to portray the actions of Assange and Manning as self-evidently good. Yet this seems too much. Whilst it seems acceptable for governments to claim that some information should be classified, it also seems reasonable to suggest that we could limit the privacy of the few in order to safeguard the security of many. The problem ‘We Steal Secrets’ fails to address is where to draw the line.