We Steal Secrets rightly restores Bradley Manning to the centre of the WikiLeaks story

Alex Gibney's WikiLeaks documentary rightly celebrates Bradley Manning, while at the same time providing plenty of ammo for Julian Assange's many critics.

We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks (15)
dir: Alex Gibney

Until a few years ago, the description of a public figure as a “crazy, white-haired Aussie dude” would likely have called to mind Sir Les Patterson, the sozzled Australian cultural attaché created by Barry Humphries. In We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks, the silver-maned nut job we are presented with is Julian Assange. Whether his personal conduct towards women gives him something else in common with Sir Les is one of several questions that Alex Gibney can only raise without any hope of answering conclusively.

It’s regrettable that Assange didn’t consent to an interview – or, at least, to one that wasn’t accompanied by a $1m price tag. On the whole, Gibney (who directed Enron and Taxi to the Dark Side, about the murder of an Afghan cab driver by US soldiers) has made the best of what he’s got. Most importantly, the picture restores to the centre of the narrative Private Bradley Manning, a genuine hero not at liberty to take advantage of the hospitality of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Gibney traces Assange’s subversiveness back to his involvement in the Wank Worm, which sounds like a subject for a post-watershed edition of Gardeners’ Question Time but is actually a virus (“Worms Against Nuclear Killers”) used by Australian hackers to destabilise Nasa computer systems in the late 1980s. For the film’s first hour, Assange is presented as quite the folk hero. He set up WikiLeaks as a confidential drop box for secrets requiring urgent disclosure; an early success for the site was its revelation about suspicious practices at Icelandic banks, which prompted riots by a people not renowned for their fury, Björk aside.

Entering the story stage left, burdened with secrets personal and governmental, is Manning, a guilt-ridden innocent who resembles a smudge of Angel Delight with acne. Among the classified videos he passes anonymously to WikiLeaks is one of a US air strike on Baghdad by whooping, adrenalised soldiers who appear to be under the impression that they’re playing Call of Duty. Eleven people died in that sustained attack, including a father driving his children to school and two members of Reuters staff whose cameras were mistaken for weapons.

While the reach of Assange and WikiLeaks is represented in the film by images of lines latticing the globe, Manning’s words are rendered entirely in a lonely ticker tape of computer type, the cursor blinking plaintively at the end of each line. (His username, bradass87, is touchingly aspirational in the special way that only usernames can be.) Asked by Adrian Lamo, the hacker to whom he reaches out and who ends up shopping him to the authorities, why he has turned whistle-blower, Manning types: “I . . . care?”

We Steal Secrets is correct to celebrate Manning. But it’s obvious from the roll call of interviewees, which includes a number of people who believe they’ve been wronged by Assange (such as his former partner-in-espionage Daniel Domscheit-Berg), that any bias will not be favourable to the WikiLeaks founder. Admittedly, he doesn’t help matters. From colossal errors (refusing to confront fully the allegations that he sexually assaulted two women) to trifling ones (there’s some unflattering footage of him bullishly contradicting Domscheit-Berg in public or disingenuously expressing a discomfort with being photographed), he has supplied much of the ammo for his character assassins.

What the film doesn’t convey is the possibility that only someone of Assange’s personality type could have engineered something as revolutionary as WikiLeaks (even if his approach to life-saving redactions in classified documents could be cavalier). Just as Assange’s misjudgements threaten to sully the good name of WikiLeaks, so it only takes a few indulgent flourishes by Gibney to shake our faith in his methods. A superfluous interlude reconstructing a night in the life of James Ball, a former WikiLeaks employee, suggests that Gibney harbours ambitions to make moody pop promos for Radiohead. And it can only weaken the movie’s charges against Assange to play in slow motion footage of him boogieing appallingly at a party. Impugn his integrity by all means. Savage his character. But don’t show the world his white man’s overbite and his dad-like dance moves.

Mystery man: Julian Assange emerges onto the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster