DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On November 28, 2010 we woke up to some pretty stunning revelations. People suddenly had access to hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables - classified secrets about the war on terror and backdoor diplomatic relations. It all came from WikiLeaks.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE STEAL SECRETS")
P.J. CROWLEY: This leak is industrial scale. It touches every relationship the United States has with other countries around the world.
GREENE: That's P.J. Crowley, then-U.S. assistant secretary of state. His dramatic announcement is part of a new documentary called "We Steal Secrets." It's about the man behind WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. We sat down with the director of the new film, Alex Gibney. He tells the story of Assange's rise and fall.
ALEX GIBNEY: He grew up on a small island off the coast of Queensland called Magnetic Island.
GREENE: In Australia.
GIBNEY: In Australia. He lived an itinerant childhood where his bedrock was his computer.
GREENE: It began with a computer. Fast forward to 2006. Assange launches WikiLeaks. He encourages anyone in the world to pass on information that might expose government secrets. One of the most stunning leaks was a U.S. military video showing a helicopter attack in Iraq. The victims turn out to be civilians.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five to six individuals with AK-47s. Request permission to engage.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Roger that. We have no personnel east of our position. So, you know, free to engage. Over.
GREENE: I mean this was just a window into what our military, the U.S. military, was doing that we never get from anywhere else. And this was a case where several civilians were killed, including two Reuters journalists who didn't have weapons but cameras. I mean, what was the impact of this leak?
GIBNEY: It was huge, because it really was the terrifying and ugly face of war. In addition to the two Reuters journalists, there were also children who were just torn apart by the weaponry from the Apache gunship. And when you see the video in its entirety, you also see them firing a missile into a building without really knowing who was in it. A bystander, an innocent bystander, is killed. So you could see the enormous collateral damage of war and the kind of mistakes that can lead to unnecessary civilian deaths in a way that was shocking and horrifying.
GREENE: OK. And the person who leaked this to WikiLeaks, and many other documents, a very low-level U.S. military intelligence operative in Iraq named Private Bradley Manning. Tell us about him.
GIBNEY: Bradley Manning was a young kid, a very slight, effeminate young kid who grew up in Crescent, Oklahoma. He was a computer whiz early on, and he had a lot of cultural difficulties in the military. He was gay at a time of "don't ask, don't tell" and he had a lot of emotional problems. He was tempestuous. Certain people in the Army tried to flush him out, but they kept bringing him back because he was too valuable. He was deployed to Iraq, which is where he found himself in touch with a tremendous trove of classified materials, which after 9/11 became more easily shared than it had been prior to 9/11 by intention.
GREENE: Stunning that someone with such emotional troubles had so much access to deep, deep secrets in the U.S. government.
GIBNEY: That's correct. And we were fighting two wars, right?
GIBNEY: They desperately needed smart, capable people. And so they were willing to overlook Bradley's emotional difficulties.
GREENE: Let me ask you, Alex Gibney. I had a conversation after leaving the movie theater with one of our film critics, Bob Mondello, who said that documentary filmmakers can take a lot of different approaches to one event or series of events. You seem to have taken a very personal approach to this. I mean it's the hacking culture, it's government secrets, but you really bring it home to people and human beings.
GIBNEY: You know, from afar, when I first started this story, I thought it was about a leaking machine. Turns out it's about some very interesting, quirky people who do some unexpected things and have an enormous historical impact. So the people involved and who they are and how they act turns out to be terribly important.
GREENE: And perhaps nothing more terribly important to the story than Julian Assange. His narrative changes during the film. Tell me as we sort of get to the end, what's happening to him?
GIBNEY: He runs afoul of authorities in Sweden over allegations of sexual misbehavior and suddenly he is this hunted man. And we find him now having sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
GREENE: Trying to escape being extradited...
GIBNEY: Extradited to Sweden, correct.
GREENE: You talk about these women who have alleged sexual misconduct. But it sounds like if he had done some simple things, he could have avoided this.
GIBNEY: The whole aspect of the story hinges around Julian's refusal to use a condom, or when he was using a condom whether or not he broke it intentionally. The two women started talking and they began to get freaked out. They wanted him to get an HIV test. He refused. And then they went to the police to try to force him to take an HIV test, and the police then decided that there actually might be issues here which they should investigate and possibly charge him. You know, it was just staggering, the timing of this. You know, in between the release of the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs, it just seemed too convenient. I have since concluded that actually this was strictly a personal matter, which Assange, interestingly enough, intentionally tried to pretend were a part of the whole transparency agenda. In other words, he created a conspiracy where there was none.
GREENE: I want to get this straight. You're saying he could have avoided this if he had just taken an AIDS test.
GIBNEY: Yes. I think he refused to take an HIV just because he was arrogant, but he made a very conscious decision to associate these allegations with WikiLeaks and to say that this was part of some larger conspiracy that was being directed at him by some unseen agency.
GREENE: Why do that?
GIBNEY: For one thing, it made him very famous. And for another, it means that instead of being vilified for personal misbehavior, now he's part of a grand crusade. Sometimes this happens to people who think they're on a noble mission. They become corrupted in a sense by their own sense of their own noble mission. It's called noble cause corruption. You can't do anything bad because you're so good. So he was able to take what seemed like a smear on his character and turn it into a badge of honor.
GREENE: But now locked in the Ecuadorian embassy in Britain, avoiding extradition, I mean what kind of life is he living now?
GIBNEY: A pretty limited one, but he does have his computer. And his computer has always been his lifeline to the world. So he's there in a very small room in the Ecuadorian embassy with an exercise machine and a computer. Interestingly enough, he also has a balcony from which he can make Evita-like speeches from time to time to the assembled crowds below.
GREENE: Anyone who's trying to think of himself as famous wants to give Evita-like speeches...
GIBNEY: No doubt.
GREENE: I wonder if you can tell me what Julian Assange accomplished in the end. I mean, did he change how governments, how they operate?
GIBNEY: No, he didn't. What Julian did, or what WikiLeaks did - and frankly, really what Bradley Manning did - was to show a sense of rough justice at a moment in time when governments are keeping far too many secrets, to say look what's here, look what's behind the curtain. It's like Toto pulling the curtain back and there is the man operating the levers. And we see that a lot of those levers are doing pretty terrible things.
GREENE: Alex Gibney, thanks so much for coming by to talk to us.
GIBNEY: Great. Thanks very much.
GREENE: Filmmaker Alex Gibney's new documentary is called "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.