By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 12:55 AM
Diplomats and government officials around the world lamented Monday the massive leak of U.S. diplomatic cables, and many predicted it would undercut their ability to deal with the United States on sensitive issues.
The State Department cables, dumped into the public domain by the WikiLeaks organization, embarrassed the Obama administration in foreign capitals and raised the possibility that the United States will have a much tougher time collecting critical information, even from allies.
Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, said it is hardly news that countries spy on one another. "More harmful is the reality that U.S. cables can be publicized in this devastating manner," he said. "Diplomats may think twice before sharing confidences with U.S. diplomats - at least until WikiLeaks is forgotten."
That may not be anytime soon. This week's disclosures are just the latest wave of documents the organization has released this year, following earlier batches from the Iraq and Afghan wars. Collectively, the releases have forced foreign officials to wonder whether the United States can be trusted with secrets.
The revelations, and the manner in which they emerged, were all the more damaging because U.S. officials have taken the lead in emphasizing the need for cybersecurity. At the United States' urging, cybersecurity was singled out at a NATO summit in Lisbon last week as one of the top priorities to guarantee security of alliance members in the years ahead.
"The next time I hear an American speech about cybersecurity, I am going to make a lot of unpleasant noises," said Francois Heisbourg, a former French diplomat and defense official now at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
Adding to the sour mood internationally is the extent to which U.S. diplomats have been tasked with activities traditionally associated with intelligence-gathering, including collecting personal and financial information from their sources.
Under a broad 2009 State Department directive, American diplomats are instructed to gather detailed biographical information, including business cards; cellphone, pager and fax numbers; e-mail listings; Internet or Intranet handles; credit-card and frequent flier account numbers; and work schedules.
In a statement, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denied that American diplomats had been instructed to conduct espionage: "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."
But around the world Monday, foreign leaders and analysts suggested that that job has become more difficult.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the WikiLeaks disclosures will make it harder for American diplomats to be honest in their assessments of political situations abroad and will inspire more caution among foreign leaders when they are dealing with U.S. officials.
"It's clear this will happen," he told the Association of Tel Aviv Journalists.
"Diplomacy is built on secrecy," he added. "Journalism is built on revelations. And the result of what happened with WikiLeaks, in my view, is that it will be harder for you to do your work and it will be harder for us to do our work.''Feeding 'paranoia'
In an example of the potential for diplomatic teeth-grinding, Netanyahu jumped on the report that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had suggested the United States should attack Iran's nuclear installations. This was proof, he said, that Arab countries along the Persian Gulf share Israel's determination to prevent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government in Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
But in Tehran, Ahmadinejad shrugged off King Abdullah's reported comments, suggesting they were concocted by the United States to sow trouble between Iran and its fellow Muslim neighbors.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called the release of the diplomatic cables damaging and said the timing was "terrible" because it comes as Iraqi leaders are trying to overcome their rivalries and suspicions to form a coalition government.
Last week, James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, called the impending release of the cables an "awful impediment to my business, which is to be able to have discussions in confidence with people."
Pakistan, a key U.S. ally, not only decried the fact that confidential U.S. reporting was released to the public but also questioned the accuracy of what the American diplomats sent back to Washington. Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said in a statement that Islamabad was particularly upset by reports that the Saudi king had made disparaging comments about Pakistan's president.
A senior Pakistani official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the revelation of the diplomatic cables "will only feed further paranoia" about U.S. designs in Pakistan.
"Friends of the U.S. will become extra careful about what they say to U.S. diplomats and what information they share," the official said. "The WikiLeaks explosion of cables comes at a time when some officials in Pakistan had started overcoming their distrust of U.S. diplomats and started talking frankly. . . . Even when there are no major secrets revealed, the WikiLeaks cables embarrass a lot of people for making comments in private that they would never make in public."
In neighboring Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, dismissed the importance of the leaks. He told a news conference that officials in Kabul were not surprised by what they read and did not expect the revelations to affect the conduct of U.S.-Afghan relations and the war against the Taliban.
Omer's comments were in some ways surprising because one of the cables from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul described Karzai as "extremely weak" and easily influenced.'Bad blood'
Anger flared in India, meanwhile, over the news that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed India as a "self-appointed front-runner" for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat.
"Obviously this is going to create bad blood between India and the U.S.," said Brajesh Mishra, a former national security adviser.
The revelation that attracted the most attention in Moscow involved an American diplomat's reference to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the "alpha-dog."
"That would probably flatter him," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the magazine Russia in Global Politics, said on the Echo Moskvy radio station.
The French Foreign Ministry called the WikiLeaks release "irresponsible" and said it violated international law concerning the secrecy of communications between embassies and their home bases. A spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with French practice, said the revelations "harm the resolution of issues essential for the security and stability of international relations and place people's safety at risk."
The ministry declined to confirm caustic comments attributed in the cables to Jean-David Levitte, President Nicolas Sarkozy's senior national security aide. In a conversation with a visiting U.S. official, one cable reported, Levitte described President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as crazy and said Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's leadership is fascist.
At the United Nations, diplomats expressed dismay over the release with top U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors and Austria's former envoy to Tehran, Michael Postl, a Farsi speaker and one of the few Western diplomats who maintained cordial relations with top Iranian officials, including Ahmadinejad's chief of staff and prominent opposition leaders. "He is burned," said one official.
The spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Steffan Seibert, said the government in Berlin regrets the revelation of secret cables because they could endanger Western interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. But he said it will have little impact on U.S.-German relations despite comments painting Merkel as an uninspired leader.
"The German-American relationship is mature," Seibert said at a regular briefing. "It has grown so robust over the decades, it is such a deep friendship based on shared values that it will not be seriously damaged by this."
Correspondents Leila Fadel in Baghdad, Karin Brulliard in Islamabad, Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem, Anthony Faiola in Berlin, Sudarsan Raghavan in Nairobi, Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran, Joshua Partlow in Kabul and Will Englund in Moscow, special correspondent Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi in London and staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.