My film doesn't "abuse" Julian Assange. But in a story about Wikileaks, facts matter

A response to John Pilger from Alex Gibney, director of "We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks".

How sad. John Pilger, who once had a claim to the role of truth-teller, has become a prisoner of his own unquestioning beliefs.

In a recent piece in the New Statesman, he attacked, with undisguised vitriol, my film on WikiLeaks and an essay by my executive producer, Jemima Khan, for “smearing” and “abusing” Julian Assange. He also implied that our motives were dishonest, perhaps because our views differed from his own. I initially thought to ignore Pilger’s fulminations. After all, Jemima’s original essay was articulate and persuasive. But because he assails my film, because his piece is so full of factual errors and because his style is to bully – rather than to persuade – I thought it was important to set the record straight. In a story about WikiLeaks, an organisation that claims to be dedicated to the truth, facts matter. 

The first fact that should be noted is this: John Pilger has not seen my film.

What is criticism without observation? It feels more like religious zealotry than reason. Would Pilger now insist that the proper role of a WikiLeaks supporter is to treat Assange as “the one” who cannot be questioned and to abandon what Assange calls “scientific journalism” in favour of blind faith?

Pilger says I “abuse” Assange. But had he seen my film, he would have witnessed many powerful sequences highlighting Mr Assange’s original idealism and courage. Indeed, I was drawn to this tale because it was a David and Goliath story in which Assange stood up to governments and corporations with a singular determination to use transparency as a weapon to combat mendacity, corruption and crime.

Pilger attacks the title of my film. But he got even that wrong. It is not “WikiLeaks, We Steal Secrets” as Pilger wrote. It is We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks. [Note: A few days after the original publication of Pilger’s piece, the New Statesman corrected Mr Pilger’s error.]

Why is the difference important? The made-up Pilger title – which was a better fit for his tendentious argument – implied that the film indicted WikiLeaks for “stealing secrets”. In fact, “we steal secrets” is a quote taken from the film, uttered by the former CIA director Michael Hayden. Thus, the title of the film is intended to be, er . . . ironic. (Would Pilger have thought my title Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room signalled my admiration for Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling?) Further, the intent was not to single out WikiLeaks but to set the story of WikiLeaks within a context of the way that governments – and now citizens also – steal, or leak, secrets, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. The film is not just about Assange; it examines many parts of the WikiLeaks saga, including the story of Bradley Manning. Writ large, the film is about the internet itself, and the conflict about what should and what should not be secret in the digital age. 

Now let’s examine Mr Pilger’s claim that Jemima and I misrepresented Sweden’s attempt to hold Mr Assange to account for possible sex crimes. He says the “Swedes have refused all requests for guarantees that he [Assange] will not be despatched in a secret agreement”. Gee, that sounds bad. The Swedes must be up to something.

But if Mr Pilger were to travel to the world of fact for a moment, he might see things differently. No government – including the UK – would selectively undo its laws for a particular individual, even if he is Australian, a former hacker and happens to have white hair. Extradition is a legal matter. Neither Sweden nor the UK would give anyone a guarantee prior to any request. Every request – if made – must be considered on its merits. Extradition is part of the rule of law and, as such, must apply to all individuals, even those who are friends with Mr Pilger. So, yes, the Swedes, up to now, have turned a deaf ear to all inquiries about hypothetical extradition requests.

Mr Pilger goes on to denigrate the possible accusations of sexual misconduct and rape – yes, rape – that are the concern of the Swedish prosecutors. Brushing aside any evidence, Mr Pilger pronounces the sex “consensual”, as if to say “that is that”. He quotes two women – yes, women! As if gender alone is proof of the rectitude of an argument – saying that the Swedes “manipulate rape allegations at will”

What Mr Pilger ignores is that the British courts have upheld the viability of accusations – if proven – as equally serious in the UK or Sweden. From the incomplete record of evidence that is now public, it appears that all of the exchanges between Assange and the two women may not have been so “consensual”. Of particular concern to the Swedish authorities were Assange’s aggressive behaviour and his various refusals to use a condom despite repeated requests by the women.  As a hypothetical matter, this could have resulted in unwanted pregnancy or the transmission of the HIV virus. But don’t take my word for it. The UK courts have concluded that the alleged actions by Assange – if proven – would be a form of rape in the UK or Sweden. He has had three separate hearings in the UK and they have ruled Sweden’s extradition request as legal.

Neither Jemima Khan nor I would argue that Assange, at this moment, is guilty of a crime. Like any individual suspected of wrongdoing, he must be given due process every step of the way. Assange often likes to note that he has not been “charged” and ridicules the Swedes for not agreeing to question him via Skype. But, in fact, Assange is wanted for more than questioning. As the Swedish prosecutor, Marianne Ny, has stated, “The preliminary investigation is at an advanced stage . . . Subject to any matters said by [Assange], which undermine my present view that he should be indicted, an indictment will be lodged with the court [after questioning]. It can therefore be seen that Assange is sought for the purpose of conducting criminal proceedings and that he is not sought merely to assist with our inquiries.”

According to Swedish law, Assange must be present in Sweden for due process to continue. Put another way, in Ny's formulation, he cannot be charged unless he is on Swedish soil. So Assange’s continued assertions that he hasn’t ever been charged have a kind of farcical – or even Orwellian – ring in a Swedish context. So long as he refuses to go to Sweden he likely can never be charged. Hello, Ecuador!

A key point of Jemima Khan’s piece – and a rather small section of my film – is that Julian Assange has undermined his high-minded principles by intentionally seeking to confuse them with his refusal to be held to account for possible sex crimes. Further, he has been silent regarding the vicious online attacks by his supporters on the Swedish women – including posting gun targets on their faces – even as he has been outspoken on the subject of his own persecution. Another fact: his “imprisonment” in the Ecuadorean embassy is self-imposed. There is no proof of a secret agreement between the US and Sweden to airlift Assange to Guantanamo (as one of his lawyers once suggested) if he leaves the Ecuadorean embassy. The film does not abuse or indict Assange in reference to the Swedish matter; it only raises questions about universal human rights (Swedish women have rights, too) and why Assange thinks that he should be above the law.

It is true – as my film points out – that WikiLeaks was the victim of an unfair embargo by Visa and MasterCard, and that Assange is likely the subject of a grand jury investigation by the US department of justice. At one time there was a rumour – revealed in hacked emails of the company Stratfor and also mentioned in my film – that there was a sealed indictment naming Assange. But facts should prevail. There is no proof that any [US] charges have been filed or are even imminent. There is some indication that the US government may be looking at data theft charges. But my sources tell me that the DoJ is wary of charging Assange under the Espionage Act because, as a publisher, there would be little to distinguish his role from that of the Guardian or the New York Times. Both the Times and the Guardian have said, publicly, that they would rush to Assange’s defence in the unlikely event that he is charged under the Espionage Act. So would I.

John Pilger’s defence of his friend Assange – by denigrating the human rights of two women in Sweden – is reminiscent of the dark side of religious devotion. In fact, as a lapsed Catholic who has just produced a film on the cover-up of sex crimes by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, I recognise Mr Pilger’s behaviour as a kind of noble cause corruption. As a point of comparison, what would we think if a cleric sought to elude accusations of sexual abuse because his overall mission was too holy to be questioned?

Jemima Khan wrote that Julian Assange runs the risk of becoming like Scientology’s L Ron Hubbard. I think his behaviour more resembles that of the outgoing Pope, who, like Assange, is fond of giving speeches to assembled multitudes on balconies. In that context, John Pilger resembles Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who, we recall, referred to sex abuse survivors’ cries for justice as nothing more than “petty gossip”.

There are many people, including me, who admire the original mission of WikiLeaks. But those supporters should not have to stand silently by as WikiLeaks’s original truth-seeking principles are undermined by a man who doesn’t want to be held to account for accusations about his personal behaviour. To paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Julian Assange is not the Messiah; and he may be a very naughty boy.

Update 1/3/2013: John Pilger responds:

Alex Gibney's absurd online rant at me for defending Julian Assange hardly merits a response, except that it contains serious falsehoods.

For the record: far from writing about his film with no knowledge of it, I had read an entire leaked transcript of the film. Gibney's assertion that the UK courts ruled on the merits of the women's case is also false. The courts ruled only on the legality of the extradition documents lodged in the UK -- documents based on a treaty that the UK and most of the EU will almost certainly repeal at the earliest opportunity. And far from dismissing the Swedish women's accusations out of hand, I sat through days of evidence in London courtrooms and, unlike Gibney, have reviewed all the discovered evidence including critical evidence of the women's SMS exchanges. 

So what is this nonsense about? Assange refused to appear in Gibney's gratuitous film about WikiLeaks - a wise decision as Gibney's rant demonstrates.

Julian Assange addressing members of the media and supporters from the window of the Ecuadorian embassy in Knightsbridge in December 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Gibney is an Oscar-winning director of documentaries, including We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks (2013), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012) and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005).

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.