The secrets-sharing site WikiLeaks has released an internal talking points memo addressing the upcoming debut of The Fifth Estate, the movie about the group’s leader Julian Assange and former WikiLeaks lieutenant Daniel Domscheit-Berg.
The released memo, which contained a late version of the script, is a “frank internal appraisal of the Dreamworks film… and what is wrong with it.”
It starts by faulting a comment by the film’s director, Bill Condon, that Assange “got hold of a very, very early draft of the script, which he has commented on, which really bears little resemblance to the movie we made.” WikiLeaks maintains it got ahold of a late version that jibes but for the location of one scene, with the finished product.
But the kernel of WikiLeaks’ apparent disagreement with the film is this.
“The Fifth Estate falsely implies that WikiLeaks harmed 2,000 US government informants.”
The memo points out that Gen. Robert Carr, who was “tasked to investigate this matter by the Pentagon – in fact stated under oath when examined by the defense counsel that there was no harm whatsoever.”
A point left out of the memo, however, was that, although that defense seems to be born out by testimony in the Chelsea Manning case, Domscheit-Berg left WikiLeaks, at least in part, because Assange’s unredacted release of classified documents had the potential to cause the death of people involved, including Iraqis who cooperated with the U.S. military. Domscheit-Berg reportedly felt that releasing it without taking the time to redact it was irresponsible.
A case could be made that WikiLeaks’s defense is tantamount to saying, “My driving home from the bar drunk was OK because I didn’t happen to kill anyone that time.”
The memo makes the perfectly reasonable point that The Fifth Estate is a work of fiction. It’s a narrative film and not a documentary. It warns viewers against taking it as gospel. It seems like an unnecessary warning, but in reality film is powerful and its images can colonize the public consciousness.
The film, says the memo, “appears in the context of ongoing efforts to bring a criminal prosecution against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange for exposing the activities of the Pentagon and the US State Department.” Assange is also facing extradition to Sweden over sexual allegations.
It further points out that the film was based on two books “both written by people who had personal and legal disputes with WikiLeaks.” Another way to put it might that those books were written by “people who disagree with WikiLeaks,” or at least with Assange.
The books are Domscheit-Berg’s Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website and WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy by the Guardian’s David Leigh and Luke Harding.
Leigh, who led the Guardian team who worked through WikiLeaks’ documents, fell out with Assange when the paper reported on the sexual assault accusations against him in Sweden. Domscheit-Berg’s clashes with WikiLeaks are well-documented and listed again in a large section of the memo.
While there may be a few details to take exception to in this memo, by and large it comes off as a legitimate attempt to discriminate between a complex reality and a less complex fictional narrative universe.
It is worth noting, however, that WikiLeaks has done little since its release of the diplomatic cable in 2010, despite its protestations to the contrary in the memo. Its largest “leak” since that time, the so-called Kissinger cables, are an aggregation of previously available materials. As Forbes’ Andy Greenberg put it, “ Lately, (WikiLeaks) has been acting more like radical librarians.” There’s value in it, certainly. But it’s no longer earthshaking.
In fact, most of what the organization seems to do these days is, well, release memos debunking films, issues statements on active leakers like Edward Snowden, and other measures to preserve its legacy and to secure Assange from prosecution both in the United States and Sweden.
Onlookers might be excused for thinking that the story of WikiLeaks as a relevant organization active in its original mission is largely fiction.
The Daily Dot requested comment from both WikiLeaks and the representatives of the filmmaker.
Photo by Jorge Figueroa/Flickr