The 1989 WANK worm attack on NASA computers, originally thought to threaten the Galileo spacecraft, is depicted as the work of Australian hackers, including Assange. The founding of Wikileaks in 2006 is followed by coverage of several key events: its 2009–2010 leaks about the Icelandic financial collapse, Swiss banking tax evasion, Kenyan government corruption, toxic-waste dumping, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning's communications with Adrian Lamo, uploads to Wikileaks of the Iraq and Afghanistan war documents, diplomatic cables, and video, exposure to the FBI by Lamo, and the accusations of sexual assault made against Assange. Interview subjects include Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Heather Brooke, James Ball, Donald Bostom, Nick Davies, Mark Davis, Jason Edwards, Timothy Douglas Webster, Michael Hayden, Adrian Lamo, J. William Leonard, Gavin MacFadyen, Smári McCarthy, Iain Overton, Kevin Poulsen and Vaughan Smith.
Assange did not participate in the production, so previously recorded interviews were used. Manning was also unavailable. John Young and Deborah Natsios contributed contacts and research material, but declined to be interviewed for the film upon learning it was tentatively titled "Unnamed Wikileaks Project". About 35 minutes of chat animations, headline effects, and other visual effects were designed and rendered by Framestore in New York.
The film previewed in December 2012, and debuted January 21, 2013 at the Sundance Film Festival. It was scheduled to be released May 24, 2013 in New York and Los Angeles, and widely in June.
We Steal Secrets has been widely praised by film reviewers, with film review site Rotten Tomatoes noting that 92% of critics have reviewed the film positively. Nonetheless it has been criticized by journalists and professors including Chris Hedges, Alexa O'Brien, and Robert Manne who was interviewed in the documentary.
Hollywood Reporter writer David Rooney found the film to be a "tremendously fascinating story told with probing insight and complexity". David Edelstein of New York Magazine wrote that the film is a "twisty, probing, altogether enthralling movie," adding that it is "a documentary with the overflowing texture of fiction." Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who calls the film "riveting and revelatory," notes that the director "lines up an A-list of experts, observers, cohorts, and adversaries, tracing how Assange's and Manning's worlds collide - virtually, and violently - and how a noble quest for transparency and truth turned into a tale of conspiracy and paranoia."
Several reviewers have noted that despite the film's strengths, some flaws remain. In the UK Guardian, Jeremy Kay gave the film 3 of 5 stars, asserting that, although the film explored facts and themes thoroughly and thoughtfully, and provided "insightful commentary" from government, media, and WikiLeaks insiders, the film revealed little about Assange, who remained unavailable to be interviewed by the director. Kay wrote, "It's probably too soon for a meaningful perspective on the WikiLeaks saga." In Variety, Peter Debruge found the film "dramatically lacking" a central core conflict, especially when compared with Gibney's previous work. Like Kay in The Guardian, Debruge found Manning's story the most compelling part of the film.
We Steal Secrets was among five films nominated for the 2013 International Documentary Association ABC News Videosource Award.
Robert Manne, who was interviewed in the film, considered it to be a "superficially impressive but ultimately myopic film". He detailed his criticism in The Monthly. Based on this article Manne and Gibney had a written debate.
In his Truthdig review, journalist Chris Hedges called the film "agitprop for the security and surveillance state," adding that it "dutifully peddles the state’s contention that WikiLeaks is not a legitimate publisher and that Chelsea Manning, who passed half a million classified Pentagon and State Department documents to WikiLeaks, is not a legitimate whistle-blower." Salon reporter Andrew O'Hehir claimed that many of Hedges's statements about the film are patently false, and that his "alarming accusations and peculiar misreadings of the film" are "an attempt to attack Gibney’s integrity and sabotage his reputation."
WikiLeaks published a transcript of the film, annotated with comments, asserted to be corrections, by WikiLeaks. Director Gibney responded that the transcript was incomplete, lacked Private Manning's words, and was from an unreleased, incomplete version of the film. Later, Gibney published his own annotated version of the WikiLeaks transcript, responding to the criticisms and assertions made by Assange and his supporters. According to the film's executive producer Jemima Khan, We Steal Secrets was "denounced before seeing" by Assange, who tweeted "an unethical and biased title in the context of pending criminal trials. It is the prosecution’s claim and it is false". Khan asserted the title was based on a quote in the film "from Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA, who told Gibney that the US government was in the business of 'stealing secrets' from other countries".