In 2010, WikiLeaks and its sources used the power of the Internet to usher in what was for some a new era of transparency and for others the beginnings of an information war.
An illuminating look at a major case.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: 'I’m a combative person," Melbourne native Julian Assange says early in We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. 'So I like crushing bastards."

Bradley Manning’s story takes up the central chunk of We Steal Secrets

His rise to public notoriety has found Assange characterised as much more and much less than that: a hero, a whistleblower, a warrior for political transparency; a terrorist, a rapist, a traitor, a megalomaniacal blunderer. One of the few clear conclusions of Alex Gibney’s engrossing survey of Wikileaks and its vortex of discontents is that Assange’s self-characterisation is closest to the truth. Even more than doing good or doing bad or doing the many varieties of things that can happen in between, Assange is motivated by his inner twerp, the kid tossing marbles under elephants’ feet.

We Steal Secrets opens with the story of the WANK virus—or worm, as it was called back in 1989, when a virus infiltrated NASA computers on the eve of the launch of plutonium-powered satellite Galileo. Designed to attack the NASA network, WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers) was eventually traced to Melbourne, Australia, where a teenage Julian Assange happened to live. Gibney makes the connection as implicit as it can be without being explicit—Assange did not participate in We Steal Secrets and appears here only in archival interview footage. Here is the first major instance of 'hacktivism', and here is the guy who happened to be on the scene.

From there the story moves to the release, via Wikileaks, of footage of a U.S. aerial attack on civilians and journalists in Iraq in 2007. In the video, titled 'Collateral Murder’, American forces make the decision to fire on a scattering of people from a great height, apparently mistaking a long-lens camera for an RPG. Subsequent reports of the incident claim a battle with insurgent forces; the video shows a handful of tiny, unsuspecting figures on the ground being blasted from the sky.

The video proved both the making and the undoing of Assange’s project, such as it was. The footage was leaked to Assange by a young private named Bradley Manning. Working as an information analyst in Iraq, Manning was increasingly alarmed by the tactics he was expected to ignore or cover up. Bradley Manning’s story takes up the central chunk of We Steal Secrets, though the way it is laid out makes his involvement and the sequence of events somewhat hard to follow.

Collateral Murder is preceded by the claim that Wikileaks has 'an unbroken record in protecting confidential sources". True and quite obviously not true. It was not Assange but Manning’s Internet chat pal Adrian Lamo who turned him in, and many of their chat transcripts are reproduced here. We learn about Manning’s struggle with his sexual identity, his loneliness in Iraq, and his bitter disillusionment with the military. Along with the video Manning leaked tens of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks; Assange made them the centerpiece of a press campaign that found him collaborating with The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel.

It was a confusing time. Manning was arrested and multiple charges were made against him. The fact that the events depicted on the video were not classified would not save Manning from prosecution. Assange was also targeted, while the newspapers that made use of his information were not. The gap between these two men is the story’s central enigma; Assange, knowing it would hurt Manning’s case, decided to release of all the leaked information anyway, and with little concern for the intelligence disasters it might create or lives that could be lost as a result. In his correspondence, anyway, Manning displays a stoical idealism, while Assange comes more and more to resemble his early hacker nickname 'Mandax’, meaning noble liar.

The rape allegations made against Assange in the wake of the Manning leaks accelerated the souring of the Wikileaks project and exacerbated its exposure of the contradictions of life in an age of data and transparency. Gibney confronts them directly, illuminating their part in the overall picture. We’re left with the image of Assange, paranoid beyond the point of functioning, holed up in London’s Ecuadorian embassy, and Manning still awaiting trial after almost three years in a military prison, where his treatment has been widely criticised, notably by the State Department. Not the story but a story of Wikileaks, We Steal Secrets takes powerful measure of what is at stake and what is yet to unfold.