WikiLeaks v. "The Fifth Estate" -- Facts and Fiction in the New Hollywood Movie

rainey 2023

Board President, Freedom of the Press Foundation

Roundtable Discussion Hosted by Freedom of the Press Foundation

Transcript below.

Last Friday, Freedom of the Press Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion on the controversial new film "The Fifth Estate," to a packed room filled with over 50 people in San Francisco. I was happy to participate in the panel along with Cindy Cohn (Legal Director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Kim Zetter (Wired Magazine). The conversation was moderated by Caleb Garling (San Francisco Chronicle).

Get Notified. Take Action.

We discussed how the new Hollywood film could potentially impact the ongoing grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks as well as how fictionalized and composite characters could appear to be real to the viewer.

We're publishing the transcript of the discussion below, and may post some video later. Special thanks to friend of the organization Tony Rolland (RMR-CRR), who transcribed this in record time.


CALEB GARLING:  Thanks everybody for being here.  We're going to have a really good discussion here about the new movie, The Fifth Estate, which is about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.  Obviously there's going to be a lot to talk about, WikiLeaks was an event that probably would take 20 movies to truly cover, but we're going to try and extract the elements of truth and the elements of change out of the movie.  

So we've got Rainey Reitman from the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Cindy Cohn from EFF, and Kim Zetter from Wired.  

Just before we get cracking, we do want to do some special thanks to Indie Bay for their lighting here, David Marr and Tucker Eason from Marrvelous Films, and then obviously Noisebridge and everybody here, thank you for hosting.  It's the best.  And then, again, the Freedom of the Press Foundation and the EFF.  

So the movie was based or was written largely off of the book, The Guardian, and a memoir from Daniel Domscheit‑Berg, and obviously that shades the way the narrative's going to play.  So I just want to open it up to sort of general impressions of the movie overall and then we can kind of dig down into some of the details.  I think there's sort of three buckets of what was included, what was not included, and then what was potentially changed as we talk about the actors

So maybe starting, Rainey, if you want to just start with how you felt, sharing the overall narrative?  

RAINEY REITMAN:  So The Fifth Estate is an entertaining movie and I would recommend that people who have been following this issue do go and see the movie.  I think that I was particularly heartened by the fact that they go back in time, so they start covering WikiLeaks way before the Manning leaks happen, so we get a really good picture of some of the work WikiLeaks was doing to expose corruption in various African states for many years before it became a well‑known website, when they were toiling in relative obscurity.  

I think it gets a lot more problematic later on in the movie when you see them sort of adopting the state department's understanding of what happened during the WikiLeaks major leaks.  And also because it does end sort of right at the height of the controversy surrounding those publications.  

So I think while the movie, The Fifth Estate, has a lot to offer somebody who has been following these issues for a long time, I think it's difficult for somebody who doesn't really know a lot about WikiLeaks to parse what's fact and what's fiction in this.  And I think that's probably one of the biggest problems.


CINDY COHN:  I agree with Rainey.  I thought actually as a movie, if I hadn't known anything about WikiLeaks, it was an entertaining movie and I think they were clever in the use of imagery and the way that they portrayed IRC chats and what was going on in Daniel's mind.  I think as a piece of movie‑making it was entertaining.  

My worries about is come from the fact that there is a pending grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks, and we suspect Julian Assange and we suspect there may be others involved in the pending grand jury investigation.  So as somebody who likes to keep people out of jail as a general rule, mixing fact and fiction in the backdrop of a pending criminal inquiry strikes me as particularly troubling.  And while, obviously, the filmmakers have a free speech right that I would defend to say what they want about the situation, I think that there's a responsibility.  
You know, I often say the First Amendment gives you a right to be an asshole, but doesn't compel you to be one.  And I'm not saying that they were assholes here, but I think in the context of this very serious investigation and the number of people's lives who were upended in the grand jury investigation, that EFF (INAUDIBLE) that we heard about, to kind of play fast and loose with the truth and the facts is, I think, even more troubling than it might otherwise be.  

But, you know, I kind of felt this way about The Social Network too.  Even though anything about Facebook or how people developed code or why they developed code, it was an interesting movie once you start realizing that, you know, nobody developed Facebook because they wanted to be like cool kids, they felt they wanted to make something cool that could change the world, then it begins to not be as great a movie as it might be if you do nothing.  

KIM ZETTER:  Yeah, I had the same impressions that they had and I agree with what they said.  But one of the primary issues with the film is that it is pulled from Daniel Domscheit‑Berg's point of view.  It is largely his story.  So you only see that viewpoint and you see the relationship between him and Julian Assange's viewpoint.  So, of course, you're going to get a lot of distortion from Daniel's perspective.  

One of the things that I thought that they did really well and I agree with Rainey about going back prior to the Bradley Manning leaks is that they do capture well the guerilla sense of the initial startup, that it was Julian alone, one server, everything was coming in on one server, everything is connected, and then as Daniel comes in and he brings in other people, then you start to see it sort of building up.  So I thought that they captured that well.  

I thought that there were just so many issues though that they didn't touch on.  WikiLeaks is such a complex story and to really focus in on Daniel's book, I think, really did a disservice to the story in general.  I mean, obviously it opens the door for a lot of other movies, but what we really need I think is a documentary to really get into all the issues around it.  
Another issue that in focusing on Daniel, and this may have been a condition of Daniel agreeing to do, to work as a consultant and sell the rights, is that it doesn't touch on Bradley Manning at all.  He doesn't show up in the film.  He shows up as a Wired news article and that's it.  They don't talk about him.  They have been, because of the condition that they didn't want to acknowledge he was a source, but we don't see any of that.  We don't see any of that source issue.  What we get instead are a redaction issue where there was concern about Julian not redacting sources in Iraq and the lives that might have been in danger in that.  

So that was, you know, that whole side of the story is not told at all.  

CALEB GARLING:  I do want, of course, drill down on a couple of the facts in the movie that are portrayed as events that happened that, you know, we agree (INAUDIBLE).
Do you want to start, Rainey?  

RAINEY REITMAN:  Oh, gosh, where do I start?  So let me think.  I think that while there's the interesting process of getting the Julius Baer effort, Julius Baer gets the website taken down, I'm just going to let Cindy explain that because EFF was so instrumental in that.  

I think, so I would say one of my big concerns, like one specific issue I have with the movie revolves around how they talk about the role Daniel Domscheit‑Berg played in taking down this information system.  A lot of the people at Noisebridge in this room are very aware of the fact that when Daniel Domscheit‑Berg left WikiLeaks, took down the mail servers is my understanding, took down the submission system, and one could argue that he didn't take it all the way down, just disabled portions of it, but then he also took all the leaks, all the leaks that hadn't been published yet by WikiLeaks.  Everything that they had received and they hadn't yet made public.  

And when they describe this in the movie, they kind of dramatize it a little bit, they kind of show him throwing down an imaginary desk and things like that.  And it's interesting, but they don't actually say the words, oh, and he took all of the information that they had received and, at least from what he has said, destroyed it.
So I think for me that is perhaps one of the most important factors of the story is here's somebody who may have had evidence of human rights abuses, he may have had, for example, the Granai video which shows the strike in Afghanistan where (INAUDIBLE) and children were killed that WikiLeaks had yet to release to the public.  He may have had the Bank of America documents that had yet to be made public.  All of these things never made it out into the world and became part of the public discussion because he decided, and potentially with the Architect, to take those things and, as far as we know, destroy them.  And that to me is something they absolutely should not have glossed over when they made a movie about Daniel Domscheit‑Berg.
KIM ZETTER:  I do want to clarify that he didn't destroy everything that they received.  He actually writes in the book, and I went back and reviewed it before we came here, he actually says that the WikiLeaks site had gone down I think around May or June, and it came up, because they were having problems with it, and it came up in July, so there was a period between July and September when they took the submission system down.  It's only that period of any documents that came in between July and September 2010 that in the submission system that he took with him.  That means everything that came in from Bradley Manning prior to that, anything that came outside of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange would have still had.  They would have been out of the submission system.  That's my understanding from what Daniel has written in the book.  But the movie doesn't make it clear.  The movie makes it clear like he's brought everything down then.  

And that also happened in stages because the way that Daniel writes in the book was they didn't actually take it down initially, they changed the password to the Twitter account, the email, and then Julian brought it down.  And then Daniel and the architect went in and then took the submissions.  So it was actually in stages but they dramatized it for the film.  

CALEB GARLING:  Is there anything else you want to add?  

RAINEY REITMAN:  No.  We'll just keep talking and see.

KIM ZETTER:  Why don't you talk about bringing the site down, the Julius Baer thing?  

CINDY COHN:  Right.  The Julius Baer thing.  It actually wasn't mishandled in the movie which is better because in Daniel's book he actually didn't get it right, and I don't know if that's because he didn't know or if it was for whatever reason.  But they did at least acknowledge that the EFF and the ACLU got the website down.  

So long before the Manning leaks, WikiLeaks published a bunch of internal information about a Swiss bank called Bank Julius Baer that revealed a lot of bad acts by people involved in the bank, a lot of money laundering, a lot of ripping money off from third world countries and stashing it in various places.  Bank Julius Baer is one of those places where you put your stolen money if you're a third world dictator.  And by publishing this information, it was very useful information, especially for people around the world.  

I mean one of the things that I think is missing from the movie, they did a nice job in the book, was demonstrating how, you know, the United States wasn't actually WikiLeaks' focus.  Ultimately when the Manning leaks came out it became something they talked about a lot, but WikiLeaks made its name and did a lot of really amazing human rights work that didn't have anything to do with the United States long before the Manning leaks.  And I think, you know, Julian's view is that the United States is just one of the many places in the world where corruption happens and we want to shine a light on it.  And to its credit the movie didn't do one of the things I was afraid it was going to do and that's to make is to make it sort of American, you know, about America.  It did have an international element.  

So what happened was a judge here in San Francisco, Judge White, who is quite a good judge, got an emergency request from the bank's lawyers, very high priced bank lawyers, claiming that there was a horrible disaster going on and that the WikiLeaks domain name had to be enjoined at the domaining registrar as well.  And the little domaining registrar got the preliminary injunction demanding that they unplug the WikiLeaks domain and took it all down.  And, you know, problematic because the domain name host actually had a complete defense under the law, but I don't think was sophisticated enough to realize that they did and so it folded.  

And so we, EFF, along with the ACLU, got involved, we reached out to media companies, of course, Freedom of the Press, Public Citizen, a bunch of people, but it was really kind of we helped orchestrate this.  And one of the problems we had was that WikiLeaks itself wasn't really present in the conversation, although I was receiving missives occasionally from Kenya.  
So what we did was we decided, well, we couldn't represent WikiLeaks because we didn't actually have a client very well.  They did have some U.S. based lawyers, but it was very confusing.  So we decided that we would represent the readers, the people who wanted to have access to the information, the recipients of the information.  The First Amendment protects your right to publish, it also 6s your right to read.

And so we represented those interests and we put together an amicus brief, I think we filed two or maybe three briefs.  It was taken down on the 15th and we got it back I think on the 28th or the 29th of February of 2008.  And so, but in between, in that roughly less than two week period, we did a lot of legal work and otherwise organizing work in order to marshal a huge force to convince Judge White that he had been sold a bill of goods by these lawyers.  And to his great credit, by the time we showed up in court, he said, hmm, I think I may have missed some facts here.  And Curt Opsahl who is in the audience today argued that for us and convinced the judge to reverse himself and give them the domain name back.  
So while it is not mishandled in the movie, it was a much bigger deal, I think.  And for us, one of the first times that we had seen something that we called WikiLeaks syndrome.  The bank couldn't get to WikiLeaks because there wasn't much of a there there, and it couldn't even get to WikiLeaks' host of the information.  They went all the way to the domain name registrar, and that's how they took them down.  And this is something that we've increasingly been worried about at the EFF for a long time and have a series of web pages about it, but was one of the first incidents where we saw that, where someone went up the chain because the Internet, it's all inter linked, until they got to the person who they could put the pressure on, took it down.  And not only took down the bank, they took down the whole website.  

So, anyway, that's the story.  We were very pleased and happy to do it, and a little distressed that at least prior to the movie it had been kind of missing.  

RAINEY REITMAN:  Well, and in the movie they're sitting in a coffee shop and all of a sudden they go, oh, the website's back up.  We won.  

CINDY COHN:  Yeah.   There was a little bit more work to it than that.  A couple of long nights and all‑nighters and we were very, very proud to be able to do that, and it's a nice little opinion and we convinced the judge to change his mind.  

Fun fact.  Judge White is now handling the NSA spying cases.  He was a good judge before, I think, you know, you shouldn't overestimate the ability of really high priced lawyers to (INAUDIBLE).  I mean there's only one person in the room, it was an ex parte, you know, only one side, so even the smartest people can be led astray when all they hear is one side of the story.  

CALEB GARLING:  Just kind of continuing in sort of the legal realm here, in the letter that Assange wrote to the actor, you know, it's a pretty strong worded letter, but he makes the case that the film is going to basically buttress all the distortions about him and bolster the case against him.  And he wrote that a while ago and I think he's pulled back a little bit (INAUDIBLE), not a lot.  I'm wondering if you felt that way at all, if the film felt like it was trying to buttress that at all, or if it stayed a little more ‑‑

CINDY COHN:  Well, I just think that the movie isn't, the movie is about trying to create a story that's an interesting movie and that the people are just pawns in that game, and so I think, you know, the thing that troubles me is a couple of things about it.  

I mean I think that also there's a change over time, at least, Birgitta Jonsdottier does a nice interview on it, but she somehow an earlier script, but I think the script changed over time in ways that made it probably better from the perspective of Julian, but not all the way.  So his earlier criticisms are probably based upon an earlier version.  I'm guessing on that.  
I do think there's a couple way it was misleading in that it kind of created a false equivalence between these ragtag guys who were trying to make the, you know, tell you information about what your government was up to, and the United States federal government and all of its wings.  And so, you know, the state department people end up, you know, kind of their story line is created as equivalent in a way.  And, of course, it doesn't talk at all about the Department of Justice grand jury investigation, which is the real hammer of the federal government.  
So you end up leaving in the movie thinking, oh, here are these nice story lines, right, where there's the story of the WikiLeaks guys, there's the story of the state department guys, they go through some trouble, and this is how it ends with them.  If you're just writing a piece of fiction and you're trying to show a balance between two things, it's a nice way to tell a little fanciful story.  But it's not the world, right?  I mean the U.S. federal government, the state department, the force that was brought to bear on WikiLeaks, it's not a fair fight.  But it's treated in the movie kind of as if there's this equivalence, like the state department had a bad day, then Julian lost his submission engine, you know, let's all go home and eat some popcorn, right?  You know, and the truth is that there's a whole community of people who are involved in one way or another in WikiLeaks who have been devastated by the Department of Justice investigations.  People have been called in, information has been seized, including my client, Birgitta Jonsdottir, (INAUDIBLE), Jeff Appelbaum who I co‑represented in response to the order seeking the Twitter information.  We know of some other orders.  

Most of this investigation is still under seal and the government has fought tooth and nail to prevent the unsealing.  But we know many, many people in the Cambridge area hacker communities who were dragged in front of grand juries and information turned over.  You know, all of this has to be missing from the narrative in order for you to feel like there's kind of this equivalency.  

And, again, I really want to distinguish between the piece of art that is the movie and the reality.  And in the reality this is not a fair fight.  And it's not over either.  You know, it's nice that you tie a nice little bow on it at the end of the movie, but, you know, from the perspective of Julian and all of the people who have been involved in WikiLeaks over time, they still have this big sword hanging over their head, this grand jury investigation.  

KIM ZETTER:  Do you think the movie harms Julian Assange in terms of the investigation or ‑‑

CINDY COHN:  I think it's hard to tell.  I think that they did some things that were kind to Julian.  I think that they alighted a lot of the information about the charges in Sweden that might have been very difficult for people to get over had they been portrayed differently.  I think in that way it kept the focus on what WikiLeaks was trying to do as opposed to letting the personalities completely overwhelm the narrative.  But I'm not sure how it played.  And that's why I started this by saying I was just nervous about a movie that doesn't distinguish between fact and fiction in the context of a grand jury indictment.  

I do think that this grand jury investigation is not completely politically motivated, but certainly the government, you know, the charges that they are considering against WikiLeaks and Julian are unprecedented.  They're trying to use the Espionage Act against people who engaged in informing the general public as opposed to actual spies.  And the fight about whether they are journalists or not to me kind of a side issue on this.  They were trying to inform the general public of truthful information about a matter of public concern.  Prosecuting somebody for that under the Espionage Act is unprecedented.  

KIM ZETTER:  That comes up in one line in the whole entire movie.

CINDY COHN:  Yeah.  Which is the centerpiece of the whole thing, you know, on the legal side.  

So I think that how the public perceives the players is important in the decision about whether they're going to indict, whether they're going to be able to get a conviction.  Juries are ordinary people.  And so it's why the whole movie kind of made me nervous in this context.  

Now, I can't tell how it's going to play with ordinary people.  Frankly, I'm too close to these facts to have an objective view about whether people ‑‑ I mean I think you're going to end up thinking that Julian is, you know, kind of not the nicest person, but maybe has a good heart and is trying to do the right thing, and I think those notes were all hit.  But how that plays in terms of whether you think he ought to go to jail or not, I don't know, and that's the reason why I'm nervous about the intertwining fact and fiction here.  

CALEB GARLING:  And they do give him the last word, right, I mean he kind of has a monolog at the end.  

KIM ZETTER:  No.  There's no monologue.  

RAINEY REITMAN:  Yes, there is.  

CINDY COHN:  At the very end.  

KIM ZETTER:  It's not really a monologu.  Well, did you consider that a monologue?  They got him basically in front of a camera, it's supposed to be, I think, at the embassy, in a defensive manner.  He's basically having to defend himself.  And they're cutting it in such a manner it's making him look ‑‑

RAINEY REITMAN:  Bad.  They put a screen in front of him where it will have words with facts that contradict what he says in the next sentence.  So it's not really a monologue.

KIM ZETTER:  Yeah, there's no monologue.  It gives you the titles about what happened post that, you know, the charges, or the allegations out of Sweden, and the juxtaposition between the words that are coming on and his words are designed to make you question his veracity.  


RAINEY REITMAN:  So I just wanted to build on something Cindy said which is that, and we kind of touched on this issue a little bit, but this idea that a lot of people who are watching this movie, this is what they're going to think WikiLeaks is.  So a lot of people are going to walk away and they're not going to be able to tell what's fact and what's fiction.  It's all going to seem like this was based on reality, and that actor who is portraying this fictional character is actually Julian and it's going to inform their decision, it's going to be the thing that they come to think of when they think of WikiLeaks.  

I'm nervous about that because there are, you know, composite characters as they're called, they're not actual people, that are mixed in with these people who have real names, and for the general person, that can be very difficult to parse.  And I think that that, you're in this gray zone where it's not exactly facts, it's not exactly historical, but it's kind of, you know, a different interpretation of what happened, leaving the audience to sort of not know exactly what was true and what was false.  And so they, I think the typical audience member is just going to buy into the whole thing.  

CINDY COHN:  I do want to say though, first of all, I think it's absolutely their right to do this.  It is.  I think it's important though for people to try to get educated.  But I just want to give a counter example, and I'm going to reveal what I watch sometimes on Sunday evenings which is The Good Wife, which is a TV show that often uses stories ripped from the headlines.  And in fact they have done a couple stories that are I think very close to a Julian Assange character, but they use different names and they kind of mess it up a little bit on some key facts.  So you're never thinking that they're actually telling the truth, even though they've got a search engine called Chum Hum that is maybe Google, so that they can use what I think is important.  And I think we should have media, and even fictional media, that's about the issues that we're worried with everyday.  

I think a movie that's about what's going on with WikiLeaks and what does it mean when ordinary people have the ability to speak to the world about secrets, government secrets or corruption is a really important thing to make a movie about.  But I think in the context, in this particular context, maybe taking a couple steps towards fictionalizing it so that people weren't misled and aren't misled, especially ‑‑ again, sorry to be so lawyer about this ‑‑ but, you know, a potential jury pool is not misled could have been the way to kind of make it not so, make it just that much less likely to be used against people either directly or ‑‑ not directly, but indirectly in their thinking about the situation.  

So I mean, again, I understand, you know, try and create a narrative and try to build a movie out of this, and I appreciate the media that is actually grounded in today's issues, and I'm not telling people not to go, but that's kind of what gave me a little heartburn in watching the movie.  And the way I, as I thought about it afterwards, if I were the film maker how would I have done this?  Now, I know why they do that, right, they love to rip out the headlines, they want it to be real life, but you've got to realize that that's the choice you're making, you're making a choice to, you know, that has consequences towards people.  

CALEB GARLING:  You know, it's interesting, the director who is quoted in The Telegraph talking about they want to arm people, how exactly are you going to define truth in an age where many people are just looking for stories they can turn around.  He's basically making the case they're trying to arm people to rethink the way they think about (INAUDIBLE) information.  Do you find that an accurate statement, that they did arm people with, it's a little bit talking about if they're ripping from the headlines, are they generalizing the issues enough for people to decide WikiLeaks or (INAUDIBLE).

KIM ZETTER:  I didn't think they got into the issues, that was my problem with it.  But, you know, it's entertainment, so you don't want to get into the issues I guess too deeply.  But this whole topic is rich with issues that need to be delved into and it didn't take that on at all.  So, yeah, like I said, there is room for more on this.

CALEB GARLING:  For more depth.

KIM ZETTER:  Yeah, a documentary, whatever.  

I do want to say though, I went into the theater expecting to hate the movie.  I didn't hate it.  I thought it was well done, it was well made.  It's a forgettable movie though.  No, I mean, it doesn't stick with me.  There's nothing that really stands out.  And I don't think, I read Julian's memo, I read his letter to the actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and I also read the internal memo that he published about their talking points, and, you know, it really must have been an earlier version because there are things that he objects to that aren't showing up in the movie.  
I think overall, I mean I have to say, you know, I've never had a movie made about me, so I, you know, I know that you can feel very defensive about that when somebody decides that they're going to make a movie and obviously they're not even going to discuss it with you.  So I understand from that perspective the defensiveness of it.  

On the other hand, you know, I approached it, I was looking for the bias and all that.  There was some bias coming from Daniel, from Daniel's viewpoint obviously, but overall, you know, Julian doesn't come out that bad in it.  I mean he is Julian, with all of those personality quirks and all of those things that we all know about him, they're there.  But that's who he is.  You know, he is a human being, he has faults and flaws.  He's acknowledged, I think, to some degree that they did make mistakes in the beginning.  So it does catch some of it, it captures some of that.  

From his perspective, obviously if you're the subject of it, you're going to be offended by that.  But overall, I think, you know, I don't think that they, I didn't find they were skewering him I guess is what I'm trying to say.  It wasn't the cartoon baddie that Benedict (INAUDIBLE).

RAINEY REITMAN:  Well, so I went to go see this movie with a friend of mine who has worked on the Chelsea Manning campaign for three years and who feels that, you know, these leaks are part of a much larger struggle for transparency in government, that this is a much, much bigger issue, this is about people trying to force the government to be accountable to them and make decisions based on what the government's actually doing.  And he wrote me actually today just before this panel and he said it was like watching that movie was trying to watch Lord of the Rings, only instead of it being Lord of the Rings, it's mostly a story about two hobbits having fights.  But this is taking this huge issue and taking down the personal infight between Julian and Daniel, and missing the real story here, which is that this is, you know, really part of a really huge movement we have of transparency advocates fighting for more accountable governments.  So I thought that was a really interesting perspective and I think that really resonated for me.  


RAINEY REITMAN:  It is, it's a relationship.  

CINDY COHN:  And to the extent that, I mean that's what Daniel's book is, I mean Daniel's book is like this love story, he was amazing, I thought he was perfect, and then he wasn't perfect, and my heart was broken, so I left.  And that's what the book said to me.  

KIM ZETTER:  And all I had was his tattoo on my back.  

CINDY COHN:  Yeah.  So by picking that book you kind of picked that narrative.  I mean it's very hard, look, I spent a lot of time trying to take huge, complicated computer networks and what people do with them and turn it into a narrative that a federal judge can understand, so I have some sympathy for the film maker here.  Because if you put in every fact that every single person would want you to put in, you can't tell a story.  And if you can't tell the story, it's very hard to get people to understand why something matters.  Right?  So you do this all the time, Kim, you have to pull a line out of a bunch of crazy facts in all sorts of different directions.  So I have some sympathy for the film makers here.  And trying to decide what you want to put in and what you want to leave out I think is one of the hardest things to do when you're trying to pull a narrative together.  

So I understand why you want to have a hook, a human hook for this story.  And I think it tried a little to play with old media versus new media, and the kind of, you know, the little yo mama thing between The Guardian guy played by the Downton Abbey dude and the other ones.  And Julian ‑‑ so they tried to deal with old media and new media, and they tried to deal with the state department and their need to protect their secrets versus the world, versus their publication.  But you never saw who the publication helped.  You only saw who the publication hurt.  And, of course, there are human rights people all over the world who use that information to do tremendous important things.  

And the other thing about the Manning leaks is that, again, they're not primarily about the American government.  The way that they were most used were by local activists in local governments because they got the U.S. perspective of what their own government was doing and they were able to use it locally, right?  I mean the diplomatic cables weren't about what was happening to Americans.  I mean the collateral murder video, the war crime is something about the Americans that you learned about and should know about.  But most of what was in those cables was useful to people around locally.

So I'm somewhat sympathetic to the problem in creating this story.  On the other hand, when there's nobody's life at stake, then I give you all whatever you want to do, but that's not the story they chose to tell.  

CALEB GARLING:  And there's also a couple composite characters in the state department.  I wonder if there are any others that are simplifying, for instance, situations that you might have, like (INAUDIBLE).

CINDY COHN:  I didn't give them a hard time for that.  I think though if you really want to tell a balanced story, you need to tell about the people who it helped.  And I do think that particular story line, like the guy going over the border and he just made it, I thought that was largely made up.  Given that it's a very central story line, I was worried about whether the guy was going to make it over the border.  It was very well told.  

To have that key point be, I don't even think that was positive, I just think it was made up based upon some bits and pieces of some other stories.  I did have a hard time with that.  Again, if they would have done it as a fiction, I would have been okay with it.  

RAINEY REITMAN:  Right.  So for those of you who haven't seen the movie, a very in‑depth, a very long portrait of someone who's a source for the American government based in Libya, and you see him, the cables come out and then he pleads for his life and his family.  It's very dramatic, a very long scene.  You see him going in and they've got a baby and they're in a car and they're headed to the border.  And you're in the car with them.  You've got the two people in the front, they roll up to the border stop and they stop them there asking where he's going and what he's going for, and there's these long dramatic pauses and you're like is this guy going to die?  They really put the drama up in there to make it feel very, very, very personal.  
I don't know if that happened.  My understanding is that that scene is a composite scene and it's supposed to be similar to things that may have happened.  I think that that, that's one of the things that bothers me is that people who know Julian's a real character and know Daniel's a real character are going to think that person is also exactly a real character and that that actually happened.  

I think that, you know, having spent a lot of time following the Manning case, that the government spent quite a long period of time engaged in damage assessments to see what was the actual harm that the American government suffered as a result of these leaks.  And they had delayed, delayed, delayed the Manning trial, and said okay, we're done, we're ready to begin the Manning trial, and at the time Bradley.  And the defense said, well, we'd really like to see those damage assessments that you spent so long compiling.  And they said, well, we'd rather not share those with you actually.  And so then there became a lengthy, lengthy battle between the defense and the prosecution to get access to those damage assessments.  And then there was another lengthy battle right on the heels of that to prevent actual harm from being a factor in Manning's sentencing.  

So whether or not the United States government was harmed was not allowed to be considered in whether or not Manning was guilty of the crimes that she was accused of.  

So I think that one thing I see, over three years, is that the government has had a really hard time proving what specific harm came from any of those leaks.  And I was actually glad that the movie never says that anybody dies.  They never show anybody getting killed or anything like that, because that would have been just like ‑‑

KIM ZETTER:  There are actually two killings in the car.  

CINDY COHN:  Yeah, but it just happened in another time.  

KIM ZETTER:  And a different leak.  And it was also unclear in the movie who was getting killed and why they were getting killed.  They never made that clear.  

CALEB GARLING:  The writer of the film told us he condensed time a little bit, which I think threw some of the details off.  I think between those two killings he snipped out about six months, which is a long time.  

CINDY COHN:  But that, the Pinyon killing is different.  

KIM ZETTER:  Right.  It's different leaks.  I don't know if you're all familiar that there were some activists in Kenya who were killed after WikiLeaks had published some documents related to, and I don't remember the whole, was it elections ‑‑ I don't remember the whole story, but in the film all you have is that the Kenyan leaks have occurred, you have two men in a car, get in their car, and they're hearing news on the radio and they, and it's unclear exactly who they are, and they stop at a stop light and a motorcycle comes up and kills them.  And then there's a voice over that says or on the news saying something about assassination gangs.  So it's unclear ‑‑ if you knew the story about WikiLeaks, you knew that there were two activists that got killed, but it's unclear were these assassination gangs that just killed him or were they being killed for documents?  It's just a mess.  

CINDY COHN:  Yeah.  I mean in truth, I think, my understanding of the story is that the guys who gave the leaked documents to WikiLeaks wanted them published, but once they were published they were actually killed by the government.  It's very different than a situation in which somebody didn't want something published, WikiLeaks published it, and then that caused harm, which is the central harm that the government is claiming with their covert operatives.  

In the situation involving the Kenyans, my understanding, although it's not very deep, is that the guys who actually, this was something where the people who ended up ultimately sadly dying wanted that information out, even though they knew there was risks to that, there was a known risk.  

RAINEY REITMAN:  And that was before the Manning leaks.  

So, I actually thought that was an interesting scene because in the movie, I don't know if this is at all true, you see Julian very upset, or this fictional Julian, because he felt that if he had been able to raise more attention to the leaks that came out, it could have created the kind of press attention that would have safeguarded those people.  And I thought that was really ‑‑ I thought that was kind of an interesting concept because I do think that there are times when having international eyes watching can have a way of safeguarding people.  We see this with increasing bloggers all the time.  You keep their name in the news and it's one of the few ways that you can help to insure that they just don't disappear.  

CINDY COHN:  One of the things that I thought, you know, you asked about the deeper issues, and I thought that that was actually fairly well done in the movie, which was my experience watching WikiLeaks, which is that they, when they were just publishing stuff on their own they would get a little bit of press here and there, and then, you know, and the bank took their domain name they got a little press, but that was actually about the bank taking their domain name far more than it was about corruption at the bank in terms of at least the western press.  
And one of the things that WikiLeaks has been over time is nimble about figuring out both how to, they started redacting after they saw that not redacting was causing trouble.  I'm not sure that every good idea was Daniel's idea, which is one of the problems I had in the movie.  But then they started partnering with the media, and the movie has a particular version of that.  A, that it was all Daniel's idea, and B, that it was the media people's idea.  But that's not, I'm not sure that that's actually how it happened.  I just don't know.  
But to be nimble in terms of recognizing that you're not getting a lot of attention just by publishing stuff on the Internet and beginning to make the kinds of partnerships that will make a bigger splash with the information, that is one of the ways WikiLeaks kind of got smarter over time.  And, of course, the news organizations changing their view from, you know, sort of hating these guys to figure out how to partner with them a little bit, but not as much as I would have liked in terms of.

CALEB GARLING:  I think we're done.

RAINEY REITMAN:  We have to wrap up and I know Kim has to run.  

CALEB GARLING:  So maybe just a quick one 30 second closing thoughts.  

I mean the general diagnosis here is that it's a good movie but just not entirely factually complete maybe is the word, accurate is probably not the right word, but complete.  

KIM ZETTER:  I didn't see an issue with factual accuracy except the dye, the hair dye.  We were talking about this.  There's a point where Daniel basically says that Julian dyes his hair white, and the explanation that he gives is that when he was a child he was in that cult, or the lover of his mother was in a cult, and that they made all the children dye their hair white.  I had never heard this.  I remember reading it in his book and it's just tossed in there and it's just so bizarre when it comes up.  But they show, you know, Julian dying his hair in front of the sink with a bottle of peroxide.  I'll leave that to anyone else to dig into that.  

But in terms of the overall facts, I thought that they tried to do a good job of getting the basics down.  My problem is, as you said, the completeness of it, that there's a whole other large story there that needs to be told and hopefully it will at one point.  

CALEB GARLING:  Anything to add?  

RAINEY REITMAN:  I'll say and then wrap up.  

I agree that this is a work of fiction, and I think my biggest problem is that people are going to take this as gospel of what actually occurred, and in reality this is one point of view from one person, fictionalized, one person who, let's be fair, probably had a pretty big chip on his shoulder, maybe he should have, maybe he shouldn't have, and he wrote a book about it, and then that became an even more fictionalized screenplay.  And I think that ultimately I really hope that people who go into this movie go into it with eyes open realizing there's a lot more there than was portrayed in the movie.  There's a lot more good things that happened as a result of those leaks than is able to be portrayed in that movie.  There's a lot more than just a personal fight between Daniel and Julian.  It's a really important free speech fight, honestly, to be able to publish this information and the whole world to be able to access it.  And I think that ultimately that story hasn't yet really been told that well.  

CINDY COHN:  I'm glad that a movie was made.  I think Hollywood has generally done a lousy job of portraying the technical community and that this movie is actually a step forward in some of those ways, and I'm glad about that.  It was a low bar, but they, as I think I've said, I worry that by mixing facts and fiction in the context of an ongoing grand jury investigation where peoples' lives really are at stake in the real world, not just in the movie world, I would have been happier had they taken some extra steps to just go ahead and make a fictionalized movie.  I think that the global community would have welcomed it just as much if they had said WikiLeaks‑like or something like this.  

The other thing that I do have to say though is I actually thought that Benedict Cumber batch did a great job, I thought the acting was quite good, and was, you know, he did a pretty good job capturing the sense you get when you're sitting and talking to Julian anyway, his manners and his ways and the kinds of things that actors do that are somewhat magical.

Donate to support press freedom

Your support is more important than ever.

Read more about Whistleblowers

11 years after Snowden revelations, government still expanding surveillance

New ‘spy draft law’ and ongoing retaliation against those who expose government secrets show there’s a long way to go in combating overreach

Assange decision should be wake-up call for US

America was once recognized as a leader in press rights. Now other countries question its commitment to the First Amendment

Five years after Assange’s UK imprisonment, his prosecution still threatens press freedom

Espionage Act charges against Assange would criminalize journalism, no matter how often the government calls him a hacker