Alex Gibney on the Stuxnet Documentary “Zero Days”

Posted on July 8, 2016 at 7:00 am

You will not see a more purely terrifying movie this year than “Zero Days,” a documentary from Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Going Clear,” “We Steal Secrets”), one of my favorite filmmakers. He spoke to journalists along with Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu, two of the film’s most important figures, the men who discovered what they dubbed the Stuxnet computer virus, which turned out to have been developed by the Unites States and Israeli governments to unleash on the nuclear facilities in Iran. As an expert in the film explains, for centuries countries had armies and navies, and then in the 20th century they had to have air force capacities. But now, in the 21st century, wars will be fought through computer networks, probably more frequently and more devastatingly than on battlefields.

As a filmmaker, Gibney had a challenge to present a non-cinematic story in a dynamic visual medium. “It was mostly men sitting in rooms with suits on. The main character was a piece of computer code. Talk about challenging. You’ve seen ‘Enron.’ Back then I broke rule number 1A of the filmmaking manual which is never make a film about accounting.” He worked with a special effects company to “design a code, with the help of Eric and Liam, to be able to make it both accurate and also make it feel like it’s a living breathing thing. So it really was like entering the Matrix or something like that. That was key — it was to come up with a visual design for the film and then also a narrative design for what is basically a detective story. It’s kind of a spy thriller and Eric and Liam were the detectives.”

Chien provided some historical context. “I think the internet itself sort of changed how we function, our economy, a lot of growth, and the ‘internet of things’ will grow equally as well…It is very insecure and a bit worrisome and I think we fear that we will repeat mistakes that we made in the past. When we started computing it was quite open and free which was great and you could hack the computer in the old traditional sense of hacking the computer and that allowed the sort of insecurity where we are at today. We did not design computer and networking with security in mind at the start. We designed it so anyone can use it and it would be completely free. We sort of learned a lesson that you needed some level of security and that lesson currently is not being applied to the internet of things. That’s what worries us the most the right now. There is a lot of push right now to get internet of things on board with some sort of standard with some sort of default security.”

In the film, Chien and O’Murchu, in evaluating the Stuxnet virus to protect their commercial customers, quickly realized that the code was vastly more powerful and robust than anything they had seen before. The obvious conclusion was that it came from a government. But that does not mean they stop trying to find a way to stop it because it may be coming from “the good guys.” O’Murchu said, “It’s funny when you say bad guys can do this, how do you define that? The whole problem is that there are no good guys and bad guys here.” “In our world the good guys are us and the bad guys are anyone else,” Chien added, “anyone who is writing malicious codes to get unauthorized access to a computer that ultimately we normally are in charge of protecting. That is our view so we don’t ignore code because it looks super sophisticated or might be from a nation state. We have customers all over the world in countries like Germany and Belgium that Western countries have attacked equally as well and we’re responsible for protecting those computers. I would say in some sense fortunately code doesn’t come with a marker that says this is from this particular country and even if it did you can’t say that anyone would put in their code ‘Welcome from so and so.'”

The film begins with a sequence of witnesses saying some variation of “I can’t talk about it.” So how can Gibney be sure of what he is reporting? “Obviously, there are false flags. People lie to you all the time but over time you develop patterns and you try to convince yourself that actually you got the story right.”

The most candid (to a point) and compelling witness in the film is an unidentified (until the end) insider portrayed as a disembodied face made of cascading pieces of code, created for the film by a company called Scatter. “We wanted to create a character that would be in the kind of code world of the film but would also be a means of protection. So what we did was, we shot an interview with a woman, and we shot it in a way that was very much straight on but it was like we were mapping her in a 3-D space. And then it allows you to go in after the fact and both render camera moves and also break down the image into points, lines and flesh and recombine them in different ways so that they both mask the identity but also create that kind of interesting sort of hacked computer look of the character. And as you move around to the side because they were mapping only 180° in space, suddenly it starts to trail or get messy and if you go all the way around actually in the first rendering of the character we were able to literally jump outside the room and then track in, that was all after-the-fact. So it was really a wonderful device and it also helped us in terms of convincing sources to come forward that we would have a device that would be so otherworldly that it would mask identity.”

In this movie about secrets, Gibney was especially careful to protect his sources. “One of the things we did for protection was the combined testimony of a number of different people. While the New York times would frown on that technique within the context of the film I think it’s perfectly appropriate and also frankly it was key to persuading the sources to come forward and that was very important to us.” He believes that in documentaries “form follows content.” Some stories require more narrative shaping and commentary. With his Lance Armstrong film, “The Armstrong Lie,” “we hung out with Lance, we follow Lance, we don’t comment in addition I did interviews but we film for 21 days at the Tour de France. So it depends. In a lot of the films that I do tend to look back at recent events and understand them in a different way. Usually knowledge narratives get built around them and then I go in after the fact and say is this really what happened. It’s like cold cases. Is this really what happened or actually is it different than we thought it was? Is very hard to use cinéma vérité in the past, impossible in fact. I’ve got nothing against it; for the right film I love it.”

This movie can be seen as a companion piece to Gibney’s documentary about Wikileaks, “We Steal Secrets.” “It’s a matter of momentum. So far the momentum on the side of the government has been to make more and more things clasified. It becomes almost a default policy and to read more and more people into these secrets so that they are unable to talk about this. Well if you create a mountain of secrets and a huge number of people who hold these secrets it shouldn’t be surprising that there are leaks. Despite the Obama administration’s insistence on prosecuting people who leak more than all other administrations combined, you continue to get these big leaks in part, I think, because there is a belief that what the government is doing is hiding either misguided, immoral, or illegal behavior behind those secrets and therefore not being held to account. You are seeing that in the torture debate, you are seeing that in the drone debate and now you are seeing it with Stuxnet. So at some point they’ve got to wake up and understand that if they are misusing secrets James Harper lied before the Senate regarding the operations of the NSA, there’s going to be blowback and the blowback is more leaks.” Chien called it “rough justice.”

The movie calls for some international negotiations on the use of cyber-weapons. “I think the point is if we start then we’ve got a shot at it. To just throw up our hands and say ‘well, it’s impossible so let’s not worry about it,’ I think that’s just the wrong answer. We have to embark on that and part of it also is that these technologies that these weapons exist because then all of us as citizens can say well is this what we want, a complete Wild West world where everybody is launching weapons at each other all the time and we don’t know when they might launch or who might launch them, not a good thing. Someone in the film says, ‘Right now the norm is do whatever you can get away with,’ not a very good norm.”

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Directors Documentary Interview

Zero Days

Posted on July 7, 2016 at 5:46 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to weapons of mass destruction
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 8, 2016

If I could require every candidate running for office to see one movie, it would be “Zero Days,” the most terrifying movie of the year. It is the story of the Stuxnet virus developed by the US and Israeli governments to infect the nuclear facilities in Iran. As one of the experts in the film notes, for thousands of years combat was carried out by the army on land and the navy on the water. In the 20th century, battles moved into the air, and so we needed an air force. And the development of atomic weapons posed unprecedented threats and daunting challenges of statecraft as well as warcraft. And now the greatest threats come from code in a thumb drive.

“Zero Days” begins with a collage of experts all saying some version of “I can’t answer that,” “Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you,” or “That is classified.” And then writer/director Alex Gibney, the man behind documentaries about sensitive topics including Enron, Wikileaks, Scientology, use of torture by US military, and Steve Jobs, finds many of the answers anyway. His most candid source appears to us only as a disembodied face made up of code, dissolving around the edges.

Stuxnet is the name given to the weapons-grade virus by the Symantec engineers who are trying to dissect it so they can protect their customers from it. They have never seen anything so professionally constructed and destructive. (We find out later that internally, the constructors referred to it as Olympic Games.) They begin to suspect that it was put together by a nation-state to be used to disrupt enemy programs, but the project is so secret that even the US Department of Homeland Security has no knowledge of it and is spending its resources to make sure it is not used against American citizens.

Gibney skillfully shapes the story, giving us views of experts in national security, public policy, and viruses, who make it clear that by opening up the door to this category of warfare, the US opens itself up to massive and possibly permanent disruptions from our financial services and banking systems to our power grid, transportation, and water safety. A diplomat says that people thought it was impossible to develop international agreements on nuclear weapons, but, after only two decades, one exists. This movie makes clear that we do not have that kind of time, and that in this election year, there is no more important priority to put on the national agenda than this one.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and deals with weapons of mass destruction.

Family discussion: Who should decide when to use computer viruses? How much does the public have the right to know?

If you like this, try: Gibney’s film “We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks.”

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Interview: Alex Gibney of “We Steal Secrets: The Wikileaks Story”

Posted on May 31, 2013 at 11:13 am

I spoke to Alex Gibney, one of my favorite filmmakers, about his brilliant documentary on Wikileaks.

The most interesting character in the movie is Bradley Manning.  Where is he now?

He’s in prison, finally Leavenworth, after eight months in solitary confinement and being kept in a cage in Kuwait.  While he was in solitary confinement, he was stripped naked, they took his glasses, they kept the lights on, sleep deprivation, no blanket.  It was abusive treatment that rose to the level of torture.  It’s really a shocking episode which I think was trying to send a message in the most brutal way possible.  Like the British navy used to hoist the wretch on the yardarm of the ship.  “Pay attention, if you’re thinking about leaking stuff.  This could happen to you.”  I made a film about the poor kid, Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan, and I think he’s a scapegoat. Governments and organizations go after someone who’s weak because they can.  And Manning was weak — in some ways.  In some ways he was very strong.  That’s what makes him such an interesting character.  He’s what Phil Zimbardo calls “an everyday hero.”  He’s not a Daniel Ellsberg type.  He doesn’t stand up there with his hands on his lapels and proclaim.  He has a lot of problems, a lot of issues, a lot of emotional turbulence in his life.  But he was determined to do something.  And so he is important to all of us because we are all weak, flawed individuals who can occasionally do something big.Alex-gibney

Why would the US military give a troubled, unstable person at a very low rank access to almost unlimited highly sensitive material? 

They are desperate for bodies, especially smart people.  He was in a discharge unit.  A guy who was in it with him says in the movie, “This is the most unlikely military man you could possibly imagine.”  But he’s in there because he wants to get a college education.  This is the route for poor kids who want to go to college.  The army doesn’t want to let him go because he is super-smart.  But he has a lot of emotional baggage.  He’s gay at a time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  He thinks he might want a sex-change operation.

The music choices in the movie were excellent.

I worked very closely with a guy named Will Bates, from a group called Fall on Your Sword.  He created these wonderful themes for each of the characters in an environment where you feel the space of the internet.  And all of these people live out worlds in their imagination, and there’s no place to do that better than rock and roll.  So you have Midnight Oil, which is a favorite group of Julian Assange.  You  have Radiohead for James Ball.  And for Bradley Manning — he himself says he was listening to Lady Gaga singing “Telephone” while he was downloading the documents.  It’s perfect in terms of what she’s concerned about — gender identity, bullying.  And then at the end, the Ink Spots, “If I Didn’t Care.”  There’s a ghostly quality to that moment, like “The Shining.”  It takes you into the past, like an artifact in space that seemed to be mythic in some way.

What did you have to cut out of the movie that we may see on the DVD?

I wish we could have kept more on Julian’s childhood on Magnetic Island off the coast of Queensland.  It got its name when Captain Cook sailed by there and said their compasses were “fouled.”  What a perfect metaphor for Julian Assange, messing with military compasses.  There was a big section we had on Tunisia, and a much longer section on Iceland.  That’s when the goal was at its purest and they were operating on this barren rock.  It was tough to let it go.  This version is a haiku — we had a three hour and thirty minute cut.  There are some interesting characters on the DVD extras.

Do we have too many secrets?

Maybe we don’t have enough.  You have to assume once you go online, anything you put there can be made public.  Yet while you’re online you feel like it’s a private, sacred space.  But you’re really broadcasting to the world.  When it comes to governments and corporations, we should demand that less is secret.  That’s where corruption flowers.  When two Reuters journalists are killed and they won’t give the video to Reuters, what’s that about?  What about when the images of Abu Gharib were made public?  Their concerns were not about what happened, but that when we released the photos we gave comfort to the enemy.

The New York Times and The Guardian play a crucial role in your film in acting as a filter for processing and providing context for the documents Manning provided, and making sure that what was made public was not detrimental to the safety of our troops.  What will happen to that function as traditional journalism is in collapse?

JulianAssangeThere’s a part of this film that argues for renegade organizations like Wikileaks, but there’s a part that argues very strongly for traditional journalism and the kind of decisions you have to make about what should and should not be secret and how stories should be properly contextualized.  When I began this movie, I was interested in the leaking machine, the technical challenge and the technical solution, which we may have to continue to pursue as the Obama administration makes journalism more of a crime.  But what Manning needed was a journalist, someone in whom he could confide and trust.  That relationship turns out to be terribly important.

Instead, he had a relationship — online only — with a man who had the wrenching moral challenge of protecting Manning or telling the police what he knew.

The biggest problem for him is that he lied to Manning.  He squeezed him like a lemon.  He said, “Your secrets are safe with me.”  Maybe he meant it at the time or maybe he had decided to keep probing so he could get more secrets.  He’s a complicated character.  If you’re a journalist, you have a bigger conundrum.  You have to examine whether this information is in the public interest, whether people will be hurt.  But Assange would say journalists are too subject to political pressure.

If everything becomes secret and leaking becomes a capital offense – which is what Bradley Manning is facing — where are we at now?  You’d think the law would provide us that easy guidance, but it’s much more of a gray area.  The job of a journalist is to find out stuff.  The job of the government — sometimes — is to keep stuff secret.  There’s a natural tension there.  But now they want to make finding out stuff a crime.

Who should decide what is private?

It can’t just be corporations or government.  It has to be all of us.

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Directors Documentary Interview

We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks

Posted on May 31, 2013 at 8:07 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some disturbing violent images, language, and sexual material
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Substance abuse references
Violence/ Scariness: War violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, homophobia
Date Released to Theaters: May 31, 2013 ASIN: B00CUWL1VI

We-Steal-Secrets-The-Story-of-WikiLeaks-movie-poster-2The internet has made it possible to share all of the world’s knowledge. Sometimes that is a good thing, whether we’re able to track down just the exact item we want at the lowest possible price or make micro-loans to entrepreneurs in emerging economies, tracking down lost friends and family, or crowd-sourcing complex problems. Sometimes it is a bad thing as when personal or embarrassing information we think of as private becomes very public. In essence, it is great when we have access to other people’s information; not so great when they have access to ours.

So, who decides what stays secret? This brilliant documentary from Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”) explores that question through the stories of two mesmerizing personalities, itself a meta-narrative as the documentarian is exposing the secrets of the secret-sharers.

In 1989, a worm infected more than 300,000 computer systems throughout the world.  Like a real-life “WarGames,” it was the work of a smart-alecky teenager.  It was Julian Assange, who would grow up to found Wikileaks, a website set up to receive and make public confidential material, protecting the people — whistle-blowers or thieves, depending on your point of view — who provided it.

And then there was Bradley Manning, a private in the U.S. military.  Like Assange, he had exceptional computer skills.  He had personal and philosophical reasons to be angry at the U.S. government.  He was struggling with issues of sexuality and gender identity.  He was isolated.  And no one thought he was a risk.

The combination was like gasoline and a match, or maybe the Enola Gay and Fat Man.  This is the story of two men who think of themselves as following in the tradition of Daniel Ellsberg in exposing the secrets of military operations, while at the same time they are exposing the vulnerability of our systems for keeping information restricted.  If what is released brings to light shameful violations of core principles of honor and integrity, is it honorable to make it public?  What if it exposes our operations to our enemies?

Gibney’s portrayal is itself a model of even-handed, serious consideration of these issues, as highly principled and professional organizations (the New York Times and The Guardian) play a responsible filtering function in sorting through “a mountain of secrets dumped into the public domain” and providing perspective and judgment, and as Assange and Manning themselves find their own secrets exposed to the world and are charged with crimes that have led to Manning’s being imprisoned under the severest of conditions and Assange essentially a prisoner unable to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London without being extradited to Sweden to be prosecuted for sexual assault.  The film explains that 9/11 was a “watershed moment for the world of secrets,” for both keepers and sharers.  There was an unprecedented need to track terrorists and that meant an unprecedented sharing of information.  And that meant that a young private had easy access to endless classified material.  It was routine for the bored young soldiers to bring in blank CD’s to download music while they worked.  It appeared that is what he was doing, but he was downloading hundreds of thousands of documents.

“Was it once not considered patriotic to stand up to our government when it’s wrong?” someone asks.  Well, maybe.  But not at the time.  There is a lot of blaming the messenger for the bad news in this movie, perhaps most sickeningly in the attacks on the women who have accused Assange of abuse.  And, as is so often the case, heroes are not the lantern-jawed Boy Scouts we want them to be.  That’s in the movies.  No fictional story could have come up with the almost sociopathic arrogance of Assange, who likes to brag that “I’m a combative person so I like crushing bastards” or the anguished Manning, whose betrayal of his country is matched by his betrayal by the one person he trusted, an online-only friend who gave his name to the authorities.

The government will always try to control information, whether it is George W. Bush prohibiting the release of images of coffins of dead soldiers or protecting the names of CIA field personnel.  The government will aways try to get information, whether it is tracking down Bin Laden or seizing the phone records of reporters.  This thoughtful, balanced, essential examination of the clash between privacy and transparency exemplifies the best that intelligence, dedication, and honor can bring to illuminating these issues — and the devastating impact of leaving those decisions to the arrogant and unstable.

Parents should know that this film includes some images of war violence and discussions of sexual assault and gender identity issues.

Family discussion: How do we “destroy corruption?”  How do we achieve “a more civilized and just society?”  Is there a way to keep secrets?  Should there be?

If you like this, try: “The Most Dangerous Man in the America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” and “Gatekeepers,” with the former heads of the Israeli secret service revealing their own most classified secrets about shameful episodes in the conduct of their efforts to keep Israel safe.

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