PBS’ Frontline exploring “Wiki Secrets” in May

An upcoming 'Frontline' special being shopped at MIPTV features the first interview with the media from Private Bradley Manning's father, conducted by Martin Smith (pictured).
April 1, 2011

The emergence of whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks and the impact of the secrets revealed, especially those pertaining to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, have sent shock waves around the world and created a feverish flurry of interest in the team and its leader, Julian Assange. Now, the story behind another key figure in the WikiLeaks saga, Private Bradley Manning, is garnering much of the media spotlight. In May, the team behind award-winning PBS current affairs series Frontline will examine that story, bringing to light new revelations from those closest to the imprisoned soldier, including his own father.

Wiki Secrets (w/t), an hour-long special slated to air in the U.S. on May 24 and produced by Rain Media, features the first interview Brian Manning has given to the media, conducted by veteran journalist and producer Martin Smith. After conducting what fellow Frontline producer Marcela Gaviria calls “a game of cat and mouse” following initial contact with the senior Manning, it was agreed that Smith would talk to him following a visit with his son, currently in solitary confinement in the Quantico brig for allegedly sending classified military information to WikiLeaks.

Smith says he spent a total of eight hours talking with Brian Manning: five on the first day of interviews, two more a week after that and another hour spent driving around the Mannings’ hometown of Crescent, Oklahoma. Clips from the interview can be viewed online here and here, and have aired on PBS’ News Hour and during a 10-minute segment on the ‘Frontline’ magazine show this past week.

During the interview, Brian Manning, a former serviceman himself, says he simply doesn’t allow himself to think his son would be capable of defying the U.S. government by illegally distributing classified information, and only entertains the notion on camera after repeated questioning by Smith. Gaviria says the interview was “very respectful. I think Marty tends to pursue a persistent line of questioning, but Brian seemed willing to answer every question.”

Still, the clips that are currently online have prompted much discussion, and Smith points out that many viewers have commented that he was too hard on the father.

“I think in taking those clips out of an eight-hour conversation in which I was digging hard to find out what he could tell us, perhaps it came off that way,” Smith says. “He watched the interview several times and got in touch with us and said he saw no problem with it.”

For his part, Smith says he feels the elder Manning is struggling with “a pretty strained relationship” with Bradley.

“He strikes me as somebody who probably loves his son but at the same time is very conflicted about him and is really struggling with that,” says Smith. “And in talking to Bradley’s friends [about his relationship with his father], it seems the feeling’s mutual.”

Beyond the interview with Brian Manning, Smith says the Frontline team has also lined up interviews with Assange, as well as Adrian Lamo, the former hacker who turned his correspondences with the private over to authorities.

Smith says that in addition to the Manning element, the program, which is being brought to MIPTV this week by PBS International, aims to probe deeper into the story surrounding WikiLeaks and, importantly, the issue of information and its availability.

“The way we’re looking at this is that there’s a perfect storm between three forces,” says Smith. “One is Bradley Manning and his struggles with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military; another, of course, being Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks. But the third, which we get into with another set of interviews, is the government’s move after 9/11 to a ‘need to share’ basis with intelligence from ‘need to know.’ We have a number of interviews with former directors of national intelligence, [and] people inside the Pentagon and the State Department about this rethinking of how information should be handled.”

And what does the veteran journalist think of the organization at the center of the perfect storm, WikiLeaks?

“Leaking has a role to play and as a journalist it would be hypocritical for me to say that I didn’t think there was some utility here,” Smith says. “But I don’t see that our role in this is to champion WikiLeaks or Bradley, but simply to tell the truth about the story as we find it, examine it and turn over the issues that it raises.”

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.