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WikiLeaks's unveiling of secret State Department cables exposes U.S. diplomacy
The Obama administration had dispatched envoys around the world to warn foreign governments that the pending release of the information could be damaging to relations, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton personally calling a number of her counterparts.
Diplomats fear that the disclosure of the cables - many of which were not intended to be declassified for 20 years or more - will chill unvarnished conversations with foreign governments.
"By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement. "It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions."
"Nevertheless," he added, "these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world."
WikiLeaks posted a limited number of the cables on a Web site, cablegate.wikileaks.org. It said it planned to release more than a quarter-million documents in stages over the next few months. The files are classified at various levels, with 133,887 marked unclassified, 101,748 marked confidential and 15,652 marked secret, according to the site.
Although WikiLeaks has not disclosed the source of the materials, suspicion has centered on Pfc. Bradley Manning, 23, an Army intelligence analyst now in military custody.
The military arrested Manning this year, charging him with the downloading and transfer of classified material.
WikiLeaks was founded in 2006 by a former computer hacker, Julian Assange, and has released two other major tranches of secret U.S. documents - one about the war in Afghanistan, the other about the war in Iraq.
The organization has come under stress since then, with several members quitting after citing differences with Assange and the direction of the group. Additionally, Assange is facing allegations in Sweden of rape and sexual harassment, which he has denied, saying the charges are part of a U.S.-orchestrated smear campaign.
On Sunday, lawmakers from both parties condemned WikiLeaks's distribution of the cables. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced what he called "a reckless action which jeopardizes lives by exposing raw, contemporaneous intelligence." He said that such information "should remain confidential to protect the ability of the government to conduct lawful business with the private candor that's vital to effective diplomacy."
Jeffrey H. Smith, a former CIA general counsel, condemned WikiLeaks's dissemination of documents and echoed calls for Assange's prosecution.
"It just makes my blood boil," Smith said. "The harm it's going to do is just enormous. These are confidential discussions among some of our best allies."
He cited a discussion, contained in one of the cables, between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Gen. David H. Petraeus in which Saleh indicates he will cover up the U.S. role in missile strikes against al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh tells Petraeus.
"What's that going to do to our ability to have him help us in Yemen?" Smith said.
Perhaps the most damaging revelation was the fact that diplomats had been ordered in recent years to expand their information collection from political reporting to include personal information on foreign dignitaries.
U.S. officials disputed suggestions that American diplomats were asked to spy under the instructions provided in the cables, which were signed - as all cables from headquarters are - by the secretary of state, in these cases either Condoleezza Rice or Clinton. The cables were sent to embassies in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America and the U.S. mission to the United Nations.
"Our diplomats are just that, diplomats. They represent our country around the world and engage openly and transparently with representatives of foreign governments and civil society," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "Through this process, they collect information that shapes our policies and actions. This is what diplomats, from our country and other countries, have done for hundreds of years."
A senior U.S. intelligence officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified, said: "No one should think of American diplomats as spies. But our diplomats do, in fact, help add to our country's body of knowledge on a wide range of important issues. That's logical and entirely appropriate, and they do so in strict accord with American law."
Staff writer Ellen Nakashima and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.