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White House Aims To Limit WikiLeaks Damage

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange holds a press conference at Park Plaza Hotel on October 23, 2010 in London, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Dan Kitwood
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange holds a press conference at Park Plaza Hotel on October 23, 2010 in London, England. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the release of a quarter-million confidential diplomatic cables by online whistleblower WikiLeaks' an attack on America and the international community.

The U.S. "deeply regrets" the embarrassment caused by the disclosure of classified documents, she said, adding that such leaks "tear at the fabric" of responsible government.

Clinton's comments during a Monday news conference come as the White House shifted into damage-control mode in an effort to limit the fallout.


The Obama administration ordered a review of procedures to keep classified information from being released. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also announced that the Justice Department has an active criminal investigation into the documents' disclosure.

The Office of Management and Budget sent a memo on Monday telling government agencies to establish security assessment teams to make sure people have access only to the classified information they need to do their jobs.

The crackdown is part of a broader U.S. effort to convince foreign allies that the American government can be trusted to keep secrets. Jacob Lew, who directs the Office of Management and Budget, said the WikiLeaks release caused "significant damage" to national security.

Holder said the Justice Department will prosecute if violations of U.S. law are uncovered in the criminal probe into the leaked documents. Speaking at a news conference Monday, he condemned the disclosures as having put at risk the safety of diplomats and other American government personnel.

Earlier, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tried to play down the documents' import, saying, "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.


"Our diplomats are just that, diplomats," he added. "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."

'Can The United States Be Trusted?'

WikiLeaks posted the documents online and provided them to The New York Times, France's Le Monde, Britain's Guardian newspaper, the German magazine Der Spiegel and others for release Sunday.

The documents offer an unprecedented look at the American diplomatic process. They include diplomatic cables, encrypted e-mails and memos sent between the State Department and U.S. embassies abroad spanning an entire generation of American diplomacy — from 1966 to cables written as recently as this past February.

The unvarnished communiques frame U.S. negotiations on a range of events and offer sometimes blunt views of world leaders. Cables describe Afghan President Hamid Karzai as "extremely weak" and paranoid and characterize Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as playing "Robin to [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's Batman."

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, called the release very damaging to U.S. interests. "The catastrophic issue here is just a breakdown in trust," he said Monday, adding that many other countries — allies and foes alike — are likely to ask, " 'Can the United States be trusted? Can the United States keep a secret?' "

But Le Monde's editor-in-chief, Sylvie Kauffman, told NPR that in the WikiLeaks release, "there are no top secret documents; there are no intelligence documents; there are no military documents."

International Reaction

Times reporter David Sanger, who was given an advance look at documents pertaining to Iran, told NPR that "two or three things stood out."

"Arab countries from around the Persian Gulf were as concerned, if not more concerned, about the prospect of a nuclear Iran than, say, Israel is," Sanger said. "In their private conversations with the United States, some [Arab leaders] were going right up to the edge of urging military action, which seemed to be far beyond anything they were saying in public."

He said some of the documents show that the American intelligence community "believes that Iran obtained 19 medium- to long-range missiles from North Korea that would allow them to ultimately reach, say, Berlin on the European side, Moscow in the other direction."

Sanger added that the leaks also reveal that intelligence officials don't believe Iran yet has a nuclear weapon.

Sensitive documents in the release detailed how Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah repeatedly urged the U.S. to launch a strike on Iran to destroy its nuclear program and stop Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the leak of such views vindicates his country's position on Iran. If "leaders will say in public what they say in private, there might be a breakthrough," Netanyahu said Monday.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the leaks as part of an "organized effort by the U.S. to stir up trouble between Tehran and its Arab neighbors."

"We don't give any value to these documents," Ahmadinejad said at a news conference Monday. "It's without legal value. Iran and regional states are friends — such acts of mischief have no impact on relations between nations."

In London, David Field, a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron, said "it's important that governments are able to operate on the basis of confidentiality of information." And French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, "We strongly deplore the deliberate and irresponsible release of American diplomatic correspondence by the site WikiLeaks."

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry called the disclosure "irresponsible," while Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari described it as "unhelpful and untimely."

In Australia, Attorney General Robert McClelland said law enforcement officials were investigating whether WikiLeaks broke any laws. Australia is the home country of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Italian media reported that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi "laughed off" an assessment of himself as "feckless" and "vain" and comments that "frequent late nights and a penchant for partying hard means he never gets sufficient rest." It also outlined his close ties to Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Unvarnished Communiques

Other potentially damaging revelations include descriptions of how Washington used tough tactics to get other countries to accept freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay. In the case of Slovenia, its president was told to accept a detainee in exchange for a meeting with President Obama. The Pacific island nation of Kiribati was offered millions of dollars in aid if it took a group of released Guantanamo inmates, according to the Times.

Diplomatic messages also describe unsuccessful U.S. efforts in 2007 to persuade Pakistani officials to remove highly enriched uranium from a reactor out of fear that it could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Other exchanges detailed Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, telling U.S. Gen. David Petraeus that his country would pretend that it was responsible for American missile strikes against a local al-Qaida group.

Documents also indicated that the U.S. 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.

A message from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reportedly included allegations from a Chinese contact that China's Politburo directed a cyber-intrusion into Google's computer systems as part of a "coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws."

The Guardian quoted one communique as saying Karzai was a man who "did not listen to facts but instead was easily swayed by anyone who came to report even the most bizarre stories or plots against him."

Russia's Putin is presented as the country's "alpha dog" ruler and President Dmitri Medvedev as one who has to have all important decisions approved by Putin.

Le Monde said a recent memo asked U.S. diplomats to collect basic contact information about U.N. officials that included Internet passwords, credit card numbers and frequent-flier numbers. They were asked to obtain fingerprints, ID photos, DNA and iris scans of people of interest to the United States, according to the newspaper.

The cables reportedly describe German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "risk averse and rarely creative," while Libya's Gadhafi is "erratic" and in the constant company of his "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse.

With reporting from NPR's Michelle Kelemen, Dina Temple-Raston, Ari Shapiro, Sylvia Poggioli in Rome and Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Jerusalem. Material from The Associated Press also was used in this story.