Anyone familiar with the stories of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, the organization's founder and Pfc. Bradley Manning, the alleged whistleblower to WikiLeaks, would be forgiven for wondering whether PBS Frontline's documentary "WikiSecrets" presents anything new or not. The documentary attempts to make a sensational connection between Manning and Assange and suggest that Assange might know Manning is the source of the information.
PBS FRONTLINE documentaries are typically straightforward. Thus, the opening montage provides a good idea of what the main points of the documentary will be: it's hard to tell if Manning approached Assange or whether Assange approached Manning, WikiLeaks had feared one of its "sources" would be exposed, the chat logs suggest Manning knows Assange (but Assange denies that) and WikiLeaks is an anti-secrecy organization that doesn't believe in secrets, which is why over half a million documents were leaked.
In the first act, FRONTLINE attempts to psychoanalyze Manning and make a determination on his mental health. Sordid details are presented leading one to understand that Manning found himself to be smarter than most of the other soldiers in the military. He was gay and had no respect for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He was using Facebook in a way that put him at risk. He was incapable of keeping a steady job. He was a vocal person and had little respect for his commanding officers. And, an army supervisor did not find him to be fit to go to Iraq.
Adrian Lamo enters the story. The personal dilemma he experienced when deciding whether to turn Manning into the authorities is presented in terms of the fact that he is a hacker, who typically would not be an informant for the government. He consulted Tim Webster, Army Counterintelligence 2002-07, and recognized the value of classified information.
"There was no correct option"only the least incorrect one," Lamo says. Ultimately, the viewers are to believe he wanted to do the right thing.
Following Manning's arrest the story moves into a next act, which focuses on Assange, how he worked to build a coalition to release the war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan and then subsequently the US State Embassy cables.
The documentary hammers away at the idea that Julian Assange had an utter disregard for collaborators and informants--innocent people--and thought if the release of logs endangered them they should die. News organizations are presented as players who fought to convince Assange that his "purist ideology that all information should be accessible to everybody" could cost lives.
Assange rebuts this presented criticism but the rebuttal is nothing more than a simplistic denial. On its face, there is no explanation of why this "rhetorical trick" is wrong. (And that's because the footage, which features him explaining himself did not make the final cut.)
In the next act, Assange and WikiLeaks are scrutinized for releasing the cables and making it difficult for US diplomacy. Former State Department spokesperson, who was forced out of his position as spokesperson when he spoke out about Manning's treatment at Quantico, says, "Mr. Assange has disclosed this material without regard to the risk that it does generate to real people," and, "The unauthorized release of 251,000 cables that covers every relationship the United States has with countries around the world has done damage to the national interests of the United States."
John D. Negroponte, former Ambassador to the United Nations and Deputy Secretary of State for the Bush Administration who helped push America into a war in Iraq, explains the disclosure of cables has been a "pretty serious irritant." He stops just short of equating the damage the cables has done to a nuclear bomb saying, "It's serious."
In the final act, FRONTLINE gives viewers the first glimpse into some of the deeper elements of the story of WikiLeaks, Manning and Assange. Viewers see supporters standing in solidarity with Manning at Quantico. Viewers are informed that the cables released so far have "exposed widespread corruption" in Tunisia and "helped fuel a revolution and, arguably, had a domino effect."
Now consider that detail: FRONTLINE is at the very least implicitly credits WikiLeaks with much of what has happened in the Arab Spring, which means much of President Barack Obama's recent Middle East speech given at the State Department would have been different if WikiLeaks had not been releasing cables.
Daniel Domscheit-Berg, former member of WikiLeaks, mentions how, at the core of debate on WikiLeaks, there is this tension between transparency and secrecy. What needs to be figured out is what should be secret and what shouldn't be kept secret.
After noting Lamo now lives in an undisclosed location and fears for his life, the documentary closes with this line, "I wouldn't mind going to prison for the rest of my life. It's important that it gets out. I feel for some bizarre reason it might actually change something."