About forty minutes into Risk, Laura Poitras’s messy documentary portrait of Julian Assange, the filmmaker addresses the viewer from off-camera. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” she says. “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story.”
By the time she makes this confession, Poitras has been filming Assange, on and off, for six years. He has gone from a bit player on the international stage to one of its dramatic leads. His gleeful interference in the 2016 American presidential election—first with the release of e-mails poached from the Democratic National Committee, timed to coincide with, undermine, and possibly derail Hillary Clinton’s nomination at the Democratic Convention, and then with the publication of the private e-mail correspondence of Clinton’s adviser John Podesta, which was leaked, drip by drip, in the days leading up to the election to maximize the damage it might inflict on Clinton—elevated Assange’s profile and his influence.
And then this spring, it emerged that Nigel Farage, the Trump adviser and former head of the nationalist and anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (UKIP) who is now a person of interest in the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, was meeting with Assange. To those who once saw him as a crusader for truth and accountability, Assange suddenly looked more like a Svengali and a willing tool of Vladimir Putin, and certainly a man with no particular affection for liberal democracy. Yet those tendencies were present all along.
In 2010, when Poitras began work on her film, Assange’s four-year-old website, WikiLeaks, had just become the conduit for hundreds of thousands of classified American documents revealing how we prosecuted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a graphic video of American soldiers in an Apache helicopter mowing down a group of unarmed Iraqis, as well as for some 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables. All had been uploaded to the WikiLeaks site by an army private named Bradley—now Chelsea—Manning.
The genius of the WikiLeaks platform was that documents could be leaked anonymously, with all identifiers removed; WikiLeaks itself didn’t know who its sources were unless leakers chose to reveal themselves. This would prevent anyone at WikiLeaks from inadvertently, or under pressure, disclosing a source’s identity. Assange’s goal was to hold power—state power, corporate power, and powerful individuals—accountable by offering a secure and easy way to expose their secrets. He called this “radical transparency.” Manning’s bad luck was to tell a friend about the hack, and the friend then went to the FBI. For a long time, though, Assange pretended not to know who provided the documents, even when there was evidence that he and Manning had been e-mailing before the leaks.
Though the contradictions…
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