Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Frontline: "Wikisecrets"

Illustration for article titled Frontline: "Wikisecrets"

A story about WikiLeaks tends to focus on two different things: the website itself, and its role in modern politics; and the personalities most associated with the website, specifically co-founder Julian Assange and alleged leaker Bradley Manning. Supporters of WikiLeaks and its aims often claim that the focus on personality obscures the larger political effects. However, as tonight's Frontline on “WikiSecrets” demonstrates, Manning and Assange often take top billing simply because their stories and personalities are so interesting.

The first half of the documentary focuses on Manning and his acquisition of the data he is supposed to have leaked, most notably a ream of Iraq War logs and the diplomatic cables. Manning is built up as a tragic figure, a young gay man in the military for no good reason, bullied by his drill sergeants and consistently in trouble. After breaking up with his boyfriend and possibly becoming suicidal, Frontline shows how easily he could have downloaded the leaked files off of a supposedly secure computer. While the research into Manning's mental state (done via Facebook) and references to his AIM handle (“bradass87”) make this interesting and amusing, it seems almost like a distraction from the main point. Manning's mental state at the time may be fascinating, but it's not terribly relevant; while his mental state during his imprisonment is current and controversial, it's given a scant minority of the episode.

Assange is dealt with over the course of the episode, most often in an interview conducted by and for Frontline. Here and in the other footage, he comes across as brilliant and charismatic, absolutely certain of his righteousness and possibly paranoid about his path. Others interviewed make that more explicit, and those interviews and some of the editing make Assange come across poorly. (Assange and WikiLeaks seem to agree, as they've posted the full, unedited interview and a complaint about his treatment on their website.)

Yet despite that, when Assange is allowed to speak, he has some of the most intelligent lines in the program. When interviewer and narrator Martin Smith tries to confront him on how the cable leaks might have “embarrassed” the American diplomatic corps, Assange quickly replies “If they are embarrassed by what their job is, then absolutely, that is the broader intent.” Assange is intelligent and charismatic, yes, but his cleverness shines through here. He has a plan to disrupt the secrecy of the American empire, and that plan may piss people off, but it wouldn't be effective if it didn't. (Assange's rape charges are mentioned largely in passing, which is probably a good thing for a documentary about WikiLeaks and not about Assange himself. They're interesting and important, but so interesting and important that they often drown out the importance of WikiLeaks itself).

You'll have to read that into Frontline, though, because it adopts a tone of sober neutrality that belies the controversy and intense emotion of the WikiLeaks story. In so doing, I think it defends itself against the most extreme aspects of WikiLeaks' rebuttal. WikiLeaks complaining that co-founder Daniel Domscheit-Berg is interviewed is especially odd, as he's probably the most cogent, sympathetic figure in the doc, and he's on the pro-leaking side.

However, I do think that WikiLeaks has a case for arguing that this documentary does have a subtle anti-WikiLeaks bias. By choosing not to have any opinion, and presenting only the facts it can manage, Frontline ends up spending more time on the mechanics of the WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning story, and less time on causes and effects. For example, I linked to an analysis of Assange's strategy regarding “conspiracy” above, but very little time is spent on why WikiLeaks does what it does. Instead, it's all what happened and how. For example, Assange's unhappiness with his New York Times profile is mentioned, but that profile really was absurd – a major American newspaper decided to profile a person important in world politics, and used it primarily to smear his personality.


Perhaps more importantly, Frontline only spends a negligible amount of time on the consequences of WikiLeaks' releases. This is understandable within the form— analyzing consequences demands opinions—but it leads to some structural irony. Early in the documentary, when trying to explain how Manning was able to access so much sensitive data, a Wired reporter explains military reforms by saying “The lower you push this information, the more you empower your people, the greater the strategic benefit you're going to ultimately see.” This is the last we see of that reporter, so it's unclear what he believes actually happened.

Yet it doesn't take a huge leap of logic to see that, instead of Manning's alleged leaks making the military into fools, he's actually justifying that point of view. As the end of the episode makes clear, one of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks about corruption in Tunisia helped to trigger the entire Arab Spring of the past four months. Now, it's debatable whether this helps American strategic interests, but the pro-American-democracy types who have tended to demonize WikiLeaks and Manning have embraced the Arab Spring on the grounds that anything which leads to democracy helps America. One American reporter—whose name I didn't catch, possibly because my screener didn't have it—says “Seems to me, it ended up okay, right?” It's a surprisingly cogent defense of WikiLeaks on somewhat patriotic grounds, which, I think, also describes the documentary as a whole. It can be problematic, but on balance, it's a very good representation of events.


Stray Observations:

  • The documentary opens with “Collateral Murder” which remains as shocking as ever.
  • Ex-hacker Adrian Lamo is interviewed, and his mental health issues are referred to, but Frontline does not go into much detail about him. He's much more controversial than portrayed in the documentary.
  • “It's a little bit ludicrous to say that Bradley Manning's going to be tortured,” says Lamo, which is exactly what many people allege happened, directly or indirectly, during his unconvicted prison stay at Quantico.
  • Manning's father is interviewed early on, and it seems like he has a bad relationship with his son according to this, but he's been outspoken about his son's treatment at Quantico, which the doc doesn't mention.
  • Another outspoken critic of Manning's treatment, P.J. Crowley—who resigned his job at the State Department when he attacked Manning's imprisonment— says no good came out of the WikiLeaks. It's a good example of how the situation cuts to the heart of concepts of American justice.
  • Daniel Ellsburg, famous leaker of the Pentagon papers, does show up defending Manning
  • “History is on our side.” As charming and intelligent as Assange can be, almost nothing annoys me faster than someone making that claim.