WASHINGTON — The Obama administration moved forcefully today to contain damage from the release of more than a quarter-million classified diplomatic files, branding the action as an attack on the United States and raising the prospect of legal action against online whistle-blower WikiLeaks.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that WikiLeaks acted illegally in posting the material. She said the Obama administration was taking “aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the U.S. would not rule out taking action against WikiLeaks. Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration would prosecute if violations of federal law are found in an ongoing criminal investigation of the incident.
Gibbs said President Barack Obama was briefed on the impending massive leak last week and was “not pleased” about the breach of classified documents. “This is a serious violation of the law,” Gibbs said. “This is a serious threat to individuals that both carry out and assist in our foreign policy.”
The White House today ordered a government-wide review of how agencies safeguard sensitive information. Clinton said steps were already being taken to tighten oversight of diplomatic files. That action would follow a similar move by the Pentagon after leaks of military files.
The U.S. documents contained raw comments normally muffled by diplomatic politesse: Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah pressing the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” by taking action against Iran’s nuclear program. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described as “feckless” and “vain.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed as “risk averse and rarely creative.”
The release of those documents and others containing unflattering assessments of world leaders was a clear embarrassment to the administration. The director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Jacob Lew, said in ordering the agency-wide assessment today that the disclosures are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
“This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests,” Clinton said in her first comments since the weekend leaks. “It is an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.”
“It puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries,” she told reporters at the State Department.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange alleged that the administration was trying to cover up evidence of serious “human rights abuse and other criminal behavior” by the U.S. 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.
Clinton would not discuss the specific contents of the cables but said the administration “deeply regrets” any embarrassment caused by their disclosure. She did acknowledge that newly released cables that reveal concerns among Arab world leaders about Iran’s growing nuclear capability have a strong basis in reality.
“It should not be a surprise to anyone that Iran is a great concern,” she said, adding that the comments reported in the documents “confirm the fact that Iran poses a very serious threat in the eyes of her neighbors.”
Clinton’s comments came before she left Washington on a four-nation tour of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. She alluded to discussions she expects to have about the leaked documents with officials from Europe and elsewhere. Some of those diplomats may be cited in the leaked documents, confronting her with uncomfortable conversations.
Publication of the secret memos amplified widespread global alarm about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and unveiled occasional U.S. pressure tactics aimed at hot spots in Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.
The leaks unearthed such bluntly candid impressions from both diplomats and other world leaders about America’s allies and foes that Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini described the disclosures as the “Sept. 11 of world diplomacy.”
Most of the disclosures focused on familiar diplomatic issues that have long stymied U.S. officials and their foreign counterparts — the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, China’s growth as a superpower, and the frustrations of combating terrorism.
But their publication could become problems for the officials concerned and for any secret initiatives they had preferred to keep quiet. The massive release of material intended for diplomatic eyes was quickly ruffling feathers in foreign capitals despite efforts by U.S. diplomats to shore up relations with key allies in advance of the leaks.
In London, Steve 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.” 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 said it was an “irresponsible disclosure of sensitive official documents” while Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, called the document release “unhelpful and untimely.” In Australia, home country of WikiLeaks founder Assange, Attorney General Robert McClelland said law enforcement officials were investigating whether WikiLeaks broke any laws.
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.
U.S. officials may also have to mend fences after revelations that they gathered personal information on other diplomats. The leaks cited American memos encouraging U.S. diplomats at the United Nations to collect detailed data about the U.N. secretary general, his team and foreign diplomats — going beyond what is considered the normal run of information-gathering expected in diplomatic circles.
France’s Le Monde reported that one memo asked U.S. diplomats to collect basic contact information about U.N. 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.
State Department spokesman P.J. 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.”
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.”
Le Monde said it “considered that it was part of its mission to learn about these documents, to make a journalistic analysis and to make them available to its readers.” Der Spiegel said that in publishing the documents its reporters and editors “weighed the public interest against the justified interest of countries in security and confidentiality.”
The Guardian said some cables showed King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly urging the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program. The newspaper also said officials in Jordan and Bahrain have openly called for Iran’s nuclear program to be stopped by any means.
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 U.S. and South Korea were “gaming out an eventual collapse of North Korea” and discussing the prospects for a unified country if the North’s economic troubles and political transition lead it to implode.
The Times also cited diplomatic messages describing unsuccessful U.S. 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 exchanges showing Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, telling Gen. David Petraeus that his country would pretend that American missile strikes against a local al-Qaida group had come from Yemen’s forces.
The Times said another batch of documents raised questions about Italy’s 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.
Der Spiegel reported that the documents portrayed Germany’s Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in unflattering terms. It said American diplomats saw Merkel as risk-averse and Westerwelle as largely powerless.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, 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.