WikiLeaks's unveiling of secret State Department cables exposes U.S. diplomacy

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2010; 12:07 AM

A vast treasure trove of secret State Department cables obtained by the Web site WikiLeaks has exposed the inner workings of U.S. diplomacy, as well as bluntly candid assessments by American diplomats, according to news organizations granted advance access to the more than 250,000 confidential documents.

The documents suggest U.S. diplomats were ordered to engage in low-level spying by obtaining foreign diplomats' personal information, such as frequent-flier and credit card numbers, presumably to better track their movements.

The cables also expose the sensitive diplomacy involved in winning sanctions against Iran; U.S. officials' attempts to remove highly enriched uranium from Pakistan; and new information on how North Korea is believed to have aided Tehran's weaponry program, giving it advanced missiles that could allow it to strike Moscow and major Western European cities.

Many of the insights gleaned from the documents are not surprising by themselves. Newspapers, for instance, have long reported that Arab nations are privately much more concerned about Iran's nuclear program than they admit publicly, and the cables document such concerns.

Still, such analysis rarely has the imprimatur of a U.S. government document, and the cables quote Arab officials by name expressing concerns they have not expressed in public.

One cable asserts that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly asked the United States to "cut off the head of the snake"- presumably meaning to attack Iran's nuclear program - while there was still time. Another quotes a senior Saudi official as warning that if Iran is not stopped, gulf Arab states would develop their own nuclear weapons.

Even when the documents merely confirm foreigners' suspicions, they could be embarrassing for the Obama administration. In cables drafted by U.S. diplomats, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is described as an "alpha-dog," Afghan President Hamid Karzai is "driven by paranoia," and German Chancellor Angela Merkel allegedly "avoids risk and is rarely creative."

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi is accompanied everywhere by a "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, "appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin" in Europe after receiving "lavish gifts" and lucrative energy contracts and the involvement of a "shadowy," Russian-speaking Italian intermediary.

The documents reveal how U.S. embassies have relied on foreign government officials for insight into policy. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg "tattled on his colleague," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, "telling the U.S. ambassador that Westerwelle was the real barrier to the Americans' request for an increase in the number of German troops in Afghanistan."

WikiLeaks granted advance access to a number of news organizations, including Der Spiegel, the New York Times, the Guardian newspaper in Britain, El Pais in Spain and Le Monde in France. Those outlets began publishing reports on the cables on their Web sites Sunday afternoon.

While most of the cables appear to have been drafted over the past several years - including some as recently as February - others reach as far back as 1966.

Some of the cables, according to the Times, disclosed information long rumored but never confirmed: U.S. diplomats offered various countries incentives, such as a meeting with President Obama or even millions of dollars, in exchange for accepting detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison. China's Politburo directed the intrusion into Google's computer systems in that country. U.S. and South Korean diplomats have discussed how to handle the potential collapse of North Korea.

U.S. reaction

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, 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."

'Enormous' harm

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.

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