U.S. downplays impact of leaks

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By Karen DeYoung and John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Obama administration sought Monday to dilute the fallout from the disclosure of more than 250,000 State Department cables, insisting that strong foreign partnerships could withstand the damage and that the leaks will not force any U.S. policy changes.

Some senior officials noted that the documents released by the Web site WikiLeaks portrayed an administration that was as tough on problem states such as Iran and North Korea in private as it tries to be in public.

But many acknowledged a far more disturbing reality, in which foreign governments will become far less open in their dealings with U.S. officials, and American diplomats will temper the information they send to Washington.

The leaks could undercut future attempts to discuss sensitive issues with other governments. One cable, sent from Seoul in February, revealed South Korea planning for the imminent fall of the North Korean government, complicating any future talks with Pyongyang.

Other cables could force a confrontation between the administration and Congress. Some of the documents, for instance, indicate China has brushed off repeated U.S. attempts to stop its transfer of sensitive equipment to Iran and North Korea - a finding likely to incense lawmakers impatient for progress with Beijing.

"Clearly, you don't want any information like this leaked illegally and disseminated to the public," a senior administration official said.

President Obama made no mention of the leaks during a public appearance to announce a freeze on federal pay. Although national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon made a number of calls to his counterparts overseas on the issue, the White House referred substantive questions about the documents to the State Department.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a statement before she left on a trip to Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, said that "the United States deeply regrets the disclosure of any information that was intended to be confidential." But, she said, "I am confident that the partnerships that the Obama administration has worked so hard to build will withstand this challenge."

The cables report conversations with kings, presidents and foreign ministers ranging from discussions on complicated international issues, complaints about U.S. policy and negotiations on aid and arms sales, to leaders encouraging attacks on one another's countries and calling one another liars. U.S. diplomats, in remarks clearly never intended to see the light of day, assess the credibility and personalities of close allies.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has told his own country that attacks against terrorist targets there were conducted by Yemen's air force, discussed what were actually U.S. airstrikes at length with Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of the U.S. Central Command, according to a memo recounting their January meeting.

Saleh "praised" the strikes that took place in December, the cable said, but complained that the Americans had killed too many civilians, an assessment with which Petraeus took issue. Saleh "did not have any objection, however, to General Petraeus's proposal to move away from the use of cruise missiles and instead have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory, 'out of sight,' " the cable said.

"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said, according to the cable.


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