By Karen DeYoung and John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 12:52 AM
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.
Beyond the outrage and headlines already spreading abroad was the knowledge that there were many more revelations to come. In its initial Web postings over the weekend, WikiLeaks released only about a small fraction of the more than 250,000 documents it has said it will eventually publish, nearly all of them from the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. The New York Times, one of several news organizations that have received access to the documents, said in Monday's editions that it planned nine days of coverage.
"We haven't reached the bottom of it," said a senior Arab official whose government expects to be mentioned in many more releases. "It will take us weeks, if not months, to get through them."
The official said governments in his part of the world were less concerned about what the revelations will mean for their relations with the United States than about their own region. Other countries will worry not only about what his government "said about them but also what they said about us," he said.
"Even the Latin Americans are concerned," said a senior congressional aide. According to WikiLeaks, upcoming releases include thousands of State Department cables concerning countries such as Venezuela and Colombia, which have complicated relations with the United States and with each other.
Only two documents in the initial release came from the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, both discussing U.S. diplomats' conversations with Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai's half brother, and corruption allegations against him. There have thus far been no posted cables from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan.
In some cases, the WikiLeaks records have only compounded frustrations of senior foreign officials with what they see as Washington's propensity to leak sensitive information. Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah is revealed in the cables to have urged a U.S. attack on Iran, has long questioned Washington's ability to keep a secret.
In a recent interview in Islamabad, a senior Pakistani intelligence official complained bitterly about the amount of information revealed by administration officials to author Bob Woodward in his recent book, "Obama's Wars,'' about Obama decision-making on Iraq. "I don't think anyone on the other side would realize the damage it has done to confidence on our side," the official said.
The senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said cables referring to Iran's nuclear program and North Korea's missile sales underscored "the depth of international concern over the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons and the extent to which it's a shared concern of the international community." In addition to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey also expressed concern over Iran, while asking the United States not to mention it as the reason for a new NATO missile defense system.
But another senior official said that other cables describing the administration's efforts to resettle detainees released from the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba could prove damaging. Some still-unpublished documents, the official said, could contain the names of countries that are considering taking Guantanamo detainees but have not yet done so.
"They have every right to expect they will manage that news" themselves, the official said. "It could blow some deals."
The portrayal in a number of documents of China as reluctant to halt the transfer through its territory of missile and nuclear-weapons related technology could put pressure on an already brittle relationship between Washington and Beijing at a time when Congress is already concerned, and President Hu Jintao is preparing for a summit here in January.
At least five cables released so far described China as apparently turning a blind eye to proliferation to Iran and North Korea. One, dated Nov. 3, 2007, listed 10 separate occasions when the United States believed that flights carrying jet vanes - used in the production of missiles - passed through Beijing International Airport apparently on their way from North Korea to Iran.
Another cable, in September 2009, revealed that China was selling thermal imaging systems for night fighting to Iran - and using French technology in its manufacture. Last December, a cable reported that Iran was interested in buying five tons of carbon fiber - used in the manufacture of centrifuges for enriching uranium - from a Shanghai-based firm.
In February, a cable noted a request that China halt the sale of guidance systems for ballistic missiles from a Chinese company to a Malaysian firm because of fears that the firm was acting as a front for Iran. A fifth cable, in May, raised U.S. concerns that Chinese firms were selling North Korea precursors for chemical weapons.
"These are all good examples of the problem," said David Albright, the director of the Institute for Science and International Security. "China just doesn't fulfill its global obligations and this shows how it happens."
Albright and others predicted that the revelations about China could prompt more questions - by experts and by Congress - to the administration about the real extent of Beijing's cooperation.
Revelations of North Korea's persistent involvement with Iran's missile program could help bolster the administration's case that the international community needs to redouble its efforts to crack down on Pyongyang and Iran, especially when it comes to the movement of nuclear technology.
A document dated in February alleged that Iran has obtained 19 missiles from North Korea. The missiles have a longer range than anything Washington has publicly acknowledged Tehran possesses.
Staff writers Scott Wilson, Peter Finn, Greg Miller, Walter Pincus and Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.