We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks hits theaters today. It's not receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, and just last night, WikiLeaks itself released an annotated transcript of the film, pointing out what it calls factual errors and instances of selective editing.
Back in January, when the Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, Taxi to the Dark Side) film premiered at Sundance, one of the ex-WikiLeak staffers featured the documentary talked about what Gibney got right, and reflected on the historical significance of the leak itself.
James Ball worked for Wikileaks for three months. Ball, who now focuses on data journalism at the Guardian, has since written about his disillusionment with the organization. He spoke about We Steal Secrets during a panel "Out of Sight (and Outside the Law)" at Sundance.
"I think, in many ways, the most significant contributions [of the WikiLeaks] may be the ones we don't discuss now. If Manhunt was the story of one thread which led to Bin Laden, the systematic picture from WikiLeaks — and I think the film is good at revealing that — was the consequence of the thousands that didn't."
Ball recalled some of the horrors contained in documents leaked to the organization. "We found 1,300 detailed medical reports assembled by U.S. soldiers of horrific torture being committed by Iraqi Army soldiers on detainees — electric shocks to the genitals, drills through the knees, untreated gunshot wounds — and, time and again, under the Bush and Obama administrations, more prisoners were handed in to the custody of these people knowingly, with that evidence. That's a war crime."
Revelations like those, though, were why WikiLeaks was so important. "I think these are incredibly important stories — incredibly significant, but incredibly hard to face for countries that like to think of themselves as having a moral purpose, being sort of better than that," Ball said.
As a result, he suggested, the focus of the story of WikiLeaks shifted "to embassies being rude about each other, to the actual story of the leak itself — and I wonder whether that was because the other questions were too difficult. "
The film does a good job, Ball said, of humanizing of Bradley Manning, the serviceman accused of providing the classified information to WikiLeaks. There can be an instinct to reduce whistleblowers like Manning to some single, defining quality. "He's either the selfish, ridiculous person who put his nation at risk, a traitor, or a courageous hero," Ball said. "I think what the film does is remind you is remind you that Manning was a human being — a three dimensional person."
"Whoever was talking in the chat logs to Adrian Lamo was clearly an incredibly idealistic person who was appalled at what they were seeing, and who knew they could have made a lot of money with what they had. It wasn't that they didn't understand the value of choosing to do something for the greater good. But to do such an isolating act," Ball said. "You're going to be probably somebody who has already been isolated by the people around you."
He added, "I think that Manning comes out of the film fantastically well — and I think he should." Manning's trial is scheduled to begin June 3. We Steal Secrets is in theaters now.