“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Oscar Wilde’s arch observation raises the curtain on Sonia Kennebeck’s new documentary film Enemies of the State, exec-produced by Errol Morris. Winston Churchill’s summary of Russia – “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” – would be no less apt.
Viewers are invited to join Kennebeck’s investigation into the bizarre case of Matt DeHart, a former member of the US air national guard who worked on the drone programme. He played online games, joined the “hactivist” group Anonymous and was an alleged courier for the whistleblower site WikiLeaks.
DeHart’s life was turned upside down in 2010 when his home in Indiana was raided and ransacked by the FBI, which had a warrant to search for possession of child sexual abuse images. The then 25-year-old and his parents insisted that subsequent charges were fabricated as a pretext for an espionage investigation related to a shady CIA operation.
DeHart spent 21 months in prison where he alleges (supported by evidence) that he was tortured and intravenously drugged against his will. He was released on bail and, under cover of night, slipped across the border into Canada to seek political asylum. But his request was denied and he was returned to US custody. He was eventually released in 2019.
What did it all mean? Perhaps the default assumption for liberals is that DeHart was framed by the deep state. Was he a hero like Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who exposed the Pentagon Papers and was branded the most dangerous man in America? Or was he actually a predatory paedophile who tried to ride the wave of activist sympathy for whistleblowers such as Ellsberg, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden?
It’s not even clear whether DeHart – a lover of computers and guns – could be described as a whistleblower, though perhaps he did see something he was not supposed to.
“Maybe because of Hollywood, we like this, like, very simplified narrative: someone is good or bad, a hero, a traitor, a villain and so on,” Kennebeck says via Zoom from New York. “In this case, one of the interpretations could be that multiple things are true at the same time. Someone who is a hacker or ‘hacktivist’ doesn’t have to be entirely morally clean.”
Indeed, don’t come to this documentary about truth and paranoia looking for simple answers. There are twists and turns, tricks of memory, unreliable narrators and a mix of real footage with dramatic reconstruction (including actors lip-synching to original audio recordings). Sympathies are likely to swing one way and then another. Why, for example, did DeHart once turn up at the Russian embassy in Washington in an effort to escape the authorities?
Adrian Humphreys, an investigative reporter for the National Post in Canada who has written about the case, says in the film: “Because of the level of secrecy from all ends involved in this case, there’s really no firm way that I can find of truly knowing where the truth lies. Matt’s probably the only one that really knows.”
Kennebeck, 41, previously covered state intimidation in her 2016 film National Bird about drone whistleblowers. One of her contacts told her about the DeHart case, which she decided merited a film of its own. “We started reading court documents and it was clear from the beginning it was like a rabbit hole in the rabbit hole,” she says.
It’s postmodern documentary in that it shows its own working, like the inside-out Pompidou Centre in Paris or Martin Amis putting a character called Martin Amis in his novel Money. We join Kennebeck in following the trail of crumbs and share her uncertainty about where it will lead.
“It starts with what we learnt first about the story and then almost like an onion, peeling it, going deeper, showing the different perspectives and really presenting what we could find and verify to the audience for them to make sense of it. I didn’t want to put my own narrative in.”
She admits: “What was so challenging about it was all the contradictions. There wasn’t just the DeHart family and the government, but then the police investigators and a child pornography case and the victims and the victims’ families of that case and then the different attorneys’ perspectives. So it was just such a maze and telling such a story in a way that it doesn’t get confusing was a huge challenge.”
DeHart’s father, Paul, is a former intelligence officer in the air force who also worked for the National Security Agency. His mother, Leann, was an “electronic warfare voice intercept operator” in the army. They confronted their son about the child abuse images allegation, an impossibly difficult conversation; he denied it and they believed he was sincere.
The couple were open with Kennebeck. “My director of photography and I, we were doing these interviews when they shared their trauma and were clearly extremely upset. Of course, we are human beings, too. It definitely affected and impacted us deeply.”
Kennebeck and her team pored over hundreds of court records and hours of audio recordings. They filed court motions to unseal documents – a lengthy process – and tried unsuccessfully to get interviews with the FBI and the national guard.
“We thought this was a more simple story about government misconduct than it turned out to be. The FBI has a big role in all of this and they should have sat down for an interview and have spoken to us. They said no former or current FBI employee is supposed to cooperate on a story. What does that mean? That already raises a lot of flags.”
But everyone else is eager to put their own spin on events. And when Kennebeck arranges an interview with DeHart himself, viewers will discover there is a further twist.
She reflects: “The ambiguity of the story, for me, says a lot about human behaviour, about the times we live in today, how difficult it is to find independently verifiable information, especially in stories around secrecy. People filling up ambiguity with speculation: I didn’t want to do that in the film.”
Enemies of the State is available on demand and in US cinemas on 30 July with a UK date to be announced