Call it synergy. While the timing of Focus World's release of We Steal Secrets, the new documentary on WikiLeaks, is by no means coincidental, historical circumstances have conspired to make it even more up-to-the-minute than anyone could have anticipated. I suspect it was no accident that the studio issued the film (in theaters and via video on demand) the very same week that one of its major protagonists, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, is set to begin his military court martial — on charges that stem from distributing military and diplomatic intelligence data through Julian Assange's website WikiLeaks.
Not even a Manchurian Candidate true believer, though, could have predicted that a separate government-leak story would break just as the movie was reaching theaters: that of PRISM, the National Security Agency's massive Internet surveillance system for collecting private data (emails, phone calls, Internet transmissions) from ordinary citizens. A CIA technical assistant, Edward Snowden, was responsible for the leak; his reasons for why he divulged the details of this classified program are virtually identical to those Manning offered after spilling secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that these "secrets" should be public knowledge, because those in power have betrayed the public trust. Both men have been called heroic, treasonous, disgruntled employees, and everything in between — but they consider themselves to be whistle-blowers.
Naturally We Steal Secrets doesn't include Snowden; his story is still developing, and besides, his NSA scoop had no connection to WikiLeaks (which is effectively defunct at present). But it's productive to consider Snowden and Manning side by side. As we wait for the military court's verdict — the chief charge against Manning (the as-yet-unproven "aiding the enemy") could carry the death penalty or life in the brig — the fact of the Snowden leak could well alter Manning's fate. That is, the Obama administration, the media and the Armed Forces have worked in concert to take a larger problem regarding security, secrecy and the right of public access, and tried to "give it a human face" in the most negative sense. Focusing on Manning has served to isolate the media outlets who published (and benefited from) Manning's leak — The New York Times, The Guardian (U.K.) and Der Spiegel (Germany) — from legal responsibility.
This point is made in passing in We Steal Secrets, as filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Taxi to the Dark Side) wonders why Manning alone bears the brunt of the Obama administration's wrath. Partly, of course, it is because he is a soldier, and military justice is subject to certain legal vagaries. And certainly, prosecuting a soldier for stealing classified material represents a far more solid effort than, say, trying a First Amendment case against the Times for publishing it.
But more than this, Manning himself is an easy target: a gay soldier with self-professed transgender identification, politically left-leaning in a rightward social institution, with a recorded history of clashing with his superiors. For anyone even somewhat inclined to believe in military discipline, Manning flies in its very face. (And for the same reasons, he is a hero to many.) Snowden, by contrast, is not as easy to vilify, and the government's response to the NSA leak could help Manning's case by shifting the focus away from the man and back to the substance of his acts.
Gibney's film, while clearly sympathetic to Manning, errs in its own way by casting the story of WikiLeaks not as a confluence of historical events but as the tale of two individual men, Manning and WikiLeaks founder Assange. This is Gibney's "hook," and even though Secrets' ultimate conclusion is that Assange's downfall is his own egotism, his inability to separate his own identity from that of the WikiLeaks mission, Gibney himself redoubles this error. By formally constructing his film as a narrative of sorts, linking Assange and Manning as if they were two benighted men bound by fate, We Steal Secrets ends up implicitly equating them. And they are not equal. One of them is under self-imposed "house arrest" in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the U.K., delivering a weekly talk show for the Russian RT News network. And one of them joined the military as an act of near-suicidal desperation, was horrified by what he saw, and now may face a firing squad.