News24

US scrambles to save face after leaks

2010-11-29 09:28

Washington - In the wake of the massive document dump by online whistleblower WikiLeaks and numerous media reports detailing their contents, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected to address the diplomatic repercussions on Monday.

Clinton could deal with the impact first hand after she leaves Washington on a four-nation tour of Central Asia and the Middle East - a region that figures prominently in the leaked documents.

The release of more than 250 000 classified State Department documents forced the Obama administration into damage control, trying to contain fallout from unflattering assessments of world leaders and revelations about backstage US diplomacy.

The publication of the secret cables on Sunday amplified widespread global alarm about Iran's nuclear ambitions and unveiled occasional US pressure tactics aimed at hot spots in Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.

The leaks also disclosed bluntly candid impressions from both diplomats and other world leaders about America's allies and foes.

The cables unearthed new revelations about long-simmering nuclear trouble spots, detailing US, Israeli and Arab world fears of Iran's growing nuclear programme, American concerns about Pakistan's atomic arsenal and US discussions about a united Korean peninsula as a long-term solution to North Korean aggression.

Feathers ruffled

None of the disclosures appeared particularly explosive, but their publication could become problematic for the officials concerned and for any secret initiatives they had preferred to keep quiet.

The massive release of material intended for diplomatic eyes only is sure to ruffle feathers in foreign capitals, a certainty that already prompted US diplomats to scramble in recent days to shore up relations with key allies in advance of the leaks.

At Clinton's first stop in Astana, Kazakhstan, she will be attending a summit of officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a diplomatic grouping that includes many officials from countries cited in the leaked cables.

The documents published by The New York Times, France's Le Monde, Britain's Guardian newspaper, German magazine Der Spiegel and others laid out the behind-the-scenes conduct of Washington's international relations, shrouded in public by platitudes, smiles and handshakes at photo sessions among senior officials.

The White House immediately condemned the release of the WikiLeaks documents, saying "such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government".

US officials may also have to mend fences after revelations that they gathered personal information on other diplomats. The leaks cited American memos encouraging US diplomats at the United Nations to collect detailed data about the UN secretary general, his team and foreign diplomats - going beyond what is considered the normal run of information-gathering expected in diplomatic circles.

Not an expression of policy

State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley played down the diplomatic spying allegations. "Our diplomats are just that, diplomats," he said. "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."

The White House noted that "by its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions".

"Nevertheless, 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," the White House said.

On its website, The New York Times said "the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match".

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claimed the administration was trying to cover up alleged evidence of serious "human rights abuse and other criminal behaviour" by the US government. WikiLeaks posted the documents just hours after it claimed its website had been hit by a cyberattack that made the site inaccessible for much of the day.

But extracts of the more than 250 000 cables posted online by news outlets that had been given advance copies of the documents showed deep US concerns about Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes along with fears about regime collapse in Pyongyang.

Existential threat

The Guardian said some cables showed King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urging the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme.

The newspaper also said officials in Jordan and Bahrain have openly called for Iran's nuclear programme to be stopped by any means and that leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referred to Iran "as 'evil', an 'existential threat' and a power that 'is going to take us to war'," The Guardian said.

Those documents may prove the trickiest because even though the concerns of the Gulf Arab states are known, their leaders rarely offer such stark appraisals in public.

The Times highlighted documents that indicated the US and South Korea were "gaming out an eventual collapse of North Korea" and discussing the prospects for a unified country if the isolated, communist North's economic troubles and political transition lead it to implode.

The Times also cited diplomatic cables describing unsuccessful US efforts to prod Pakistani officials to remove highly enriched uranium from a reactor out of fear that the material could be used to make an illicit atomic device.

And the newspaper cited cables that showed Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, telling General David Petraeus that his country would pretend that American missile strikes against a local al-Qaida group had come from Yemen's forces.

Information gathering


The paper also cited documents showing the US used hardline tactics to win approval from countries to accept freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay. It said Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if its president wanted to meet with President Barack Obama and said the Pacific island of Kiribati was offered millions of dollars to take in a group of detainees.

It also cited a cable from the US Embassy in Beijing that included allegations from a Chinese contact that China's Politburo directed a cyber intrusion into Google's computer systems as part of a "co-ordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and internet outlaws".

Le Monde said another memo asked US diplomats to collect basic contact information about UN officials that included internet passwords, credit card numbers and frequent flyer numbers. They were asked to obtain fingerprints, ID photos, DNA and iris scans of people of interest to the United States, Le Monde said.

The Times said another batch of documents raised questions about Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his relationship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. One cable said Berlusconi "appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin" in Europe, the Times reported.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Sunday called the release the "September 11 of world diplomacy", in that everything that had once been accepted as normal has now changed.

Der Spiegel reported that the cables portrayed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in unflattering terms. It said American diplomats saw Merkel as risk-averse and Westerwelle as largely powerless.

Australian investigation

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, meanwhile, was described as erratic and in the near constant company of a Ukrainian nurse who was described in one cable as "a voluptuous blonde", according to the Times.

The State Department's top lawyer warned Assange late on Saturday that lives and military operations would be put at risk if the cables were released. Legal adviser Harold Koh said WikiLeaks would be breaking the law if it went ahead. He also rejected a request from Assange to co-operate in removing sensitive details from the documents.

In Australia, where Assange is from, law enforcement officials said on Monday they were looking into whether the WikiLeaks release broke any laws.

Attorney General Robert McClelland told reporters there are "potentially a number of criminal laws" that could have been breached.


Comments
  • GT - 2010-11-29 09:41

    Governments need to start understanding that democracy means democracy. It doesnt mean secrets, spies, renditions, assasinations etc. Finally we start to see how viscous and violent the US & Saudi relationship is. How Democracy is only useful on election day in some countries and how the "good guys" are prepared to tolerate the best of the bad guys, just to serve narrow agendas. Wikileaks should be rewarded. Here is a good article http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/28/us-embassy-cables-wikileaks

      MP3 - 2010-11-29 10:10

      We also finally have evidence that America isn't as advanced as they would have the globe to believe. They're infact vapid and vacuous and have a god complex. Could not have a worse combination even if you tried...

  • Snoek - 2010-11-29 10:28

    These human rights activists don’t know what they want. They want a safe country to live in but don’t want America to spy on others. What a bunch of hypocrites!! The middle east wants to bom the hell out of America but god forbid that their human rights be infringed by American spies.

      GT - 2010-11-29 14:03

      it appears the middle east wants to bomb the hell out of Iran! There has been nothing really damming so far. We all know most of this stuff and reading the reports is like reading the comments section of news24 - just one poephols view on things

  • Baloo - 2010-11-29 10:44

    Oooo, there is a lot of egg on a lot of faces. Not sure if I agree with Wikileaks or not. Mmmm....

  • st14338637 - 2010-11-29 10:57

    Some stones are better left unturned. There are people's lives at risk here dammit! I would rather lead a life of ignorance if it means that nobody will get hurt.

      MP3 - 2010-11-29 13:11

      wow, the ignorance in this comment is staggering. Most of the secrecy is in existence almost entirely due to the fact that people get hurt. The public's right to know what is going on is imperative. You clearly don't understand the sanctity of Freedom.

  • axeinformation - 2010-11-29 13:15

    The public should know what sick games their governments play behind the free and democratic bullsht they portray to us. Everywhere human beings want peace but it's the governments/politics etc that want war and make people believe that we are different from each other and that we should kill for our freedom. The world is changing and america will fall.

      nickcallery1 - 2010-11-29 14:39

      The whole wikileaks saga is a lot of crap devised by the americans with a horde of scriptwriters and 'leaked' onto their own website created to cause turmoil around the globe. The stupid americans need to start another war (which they can lose just like every other time) so as to keep their 'aura' of being a world power. They started the nonsense with North Korea by planning war games in a sensitive area so as to provoke China. Do they really think they can take on China? Please someone tell them that Rambo, Chuck Norris and all the other heroes have retired. If the leaked documents were genuine would some diplomats heads not have rolled by now? Are we really supposed to believe that Saudi Arabia would backbite Iran? Stupid hollywood america.

      nickcallery1 - 2010-11-29 14:46

      The whole wikileaks saga is a lot of crap devised by the americans with a horde of scriptwriters and 'leaked' onto their own website created to cause turmoil around the globe. The stupid americans need to start another war (which they can lose just like every other time) so as to keep their 'aura' of being a world power. They started the nonsense with North Korea by planning war games in a sensitive area so as to provoke China. Do they really think they can take on China? Please someone tell them that Rambo, Chuck Norris and all the other heroes have retired. If the leaked documents were genuine would some diplomats heads not have rolled by now? Are we really supposed to believe that Saudi Arabia would backbite Iran? Stupid hollywood america.

  • dougmayger - 2010-11-29 22:08

    This has all happened before - however there was not the multi-national/cyberspace communication to advertise it. My take is that it will at least get the Yanks to look at themselves for a change, and hopefully realise that they are not "perfect" - happy thanksgiving

  • ilhaamk - 2010-12-01 09:07

    GT its clear that you have never work for the government. It is impossible, negligent for any government to openly share every single thing they are working on. There must be a balance between privacy and openness. Why don't you tell us what you do in your own time?

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