Release of reports 'an attack' on world community

 

US SECRETARY of state Hillary Clinton yesterday called the planned release of hundreds of thousands of state department cables by WikiLeaks, the internet publisher that specialises in leaking classified documents, “an attack on the international community”.

Mrs Clinton said she “deeply regrets” the embarrassment caused by the leaks, which started on Sunday night when WikiLeaks published the first 220 of some 250,000 cables online. The New York Timesand several European newspapers also published excerpts from the cables, which were originally sent as e-mail reports from embassies abroad to Washington. WikiLeaks reported that 133,887 of the messages were unclassified, 101,745 were marked “confidential” and 15,652 “secret”.

The US is “taking aggressive steps” to pursue those responsible for the leaks, Mrs Clinton said.

US attorney general Eric Holder said the justice department and Pentagon are conducting “an active, ongoing criminal investigation” and will prosecute anyone found to have violated US law.

Pte Bradley Manning (23), a former low-level US army intelligence analyst in Baghdad who is suspected of obtaining the documents, boasted last May in an online conversation that “Hilary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available . . . to the public.”

Adrian Lamo, the computer hacker with whom Manning conversed on the internet, turned Manning in to US authorities.

Manning faces a probable court martial and long prison term for leaking classified information. It remains to be seen whether the US will charge the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who lives in Britain.

Peter King, the Irish-American Republican representative from New York, who is likely to head the Homeland Security Committee in the next Congress, asked the state department to designate WikiLeaks a terrorist organisation.

Mrs Clinton stressed that WikiLeaks are not well-meaning whistleblowers, and that they endanger lives. She was “confident that the partnerships and relations we have built in this administration will withstand this challenge”.

Echoing a statement by the White House press secretary the previous evening, Mrs Clinton emphasised that the cables were “personal observations and assessments” and did not represent official US foreign policy.

Before the documents were released, Mrs Clinton personally telephoned a number of her counterparts and sent envoys around the world to warn foreign governments. “At least one of my counterparts said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You should see what we say about you’,” she said yesterday.

The Pentagon announced that henceforward it will be impossible to transfer material from its classified computer systems to removable devices. Two people will be required to move classified material to unclassified systems.

After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, US government agencies were told to share intelligence more freely. Up to 600,000 people now have access to the Secret Internet Protocol Network (Siprnet) which is used to transmit classified information.

Perhaps the most damaging revelation was the fact that US diplomats were asked by Mrs Clinton and her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, to collect “humint” (human intelligence), a job usually performed by CIA agents. All out-going cables from the state department are signed with the secretary of state’s name. Commentators expressed surprise that diplomats were instructed to collect personal data such as credit card and frequent flyer numbers.

Treaties forbid intelligence gathering at the UN, but US diplomats there were asked to collect “biographic and biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats”.

The same directive requested intelligence about the management and leadership style of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

The state department spokesman PJ Crowley sought to limit the damage, declaring, “Our diplomats are just that: diplomats. They represent our country around the world and engage openly and transparently with representatives of foreign governments and civil society.”

Mrs Clinton said many of the leaked cables merely confirmed “concern about Iranian actions and intentions” throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. “We must do whatever we can to take action to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state,” she said.

But the cables also conveyed a certain sense of inevitability about the Iranian nuclear programme. A cable dated February 12th, 2010, recounted the US defence secretary Robert Gates’s lunch with his then French counterpart, Hervé Morin. The latter asked whether Israel could strike Iran without US permission. Mr Gates said they could, but that such action “would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker”.

Many of the leaked cables add colourful detail to things that were already known, for example, that Afghanistan is corrupt. When vice-president Ahmed Zia Massoud travelled to the United Arab Emirates last year, he was caught carrying $52 million in cash – which he was allowed to keep – the US embassy in Kabul reported.

It is easy to see how the information divulged will make life difficult for those who spoke in confidence to US diplomats.

The German defence minister told the US ambassador to Berlin that the foreign minister was the biggest impediment to increasing the number of German troops in Afghanistan.

And imagine the predicament of the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who joked in a conversation with US general David Petraeus that he had just lied to his own parliament about US air-strikes in his country. Mr Saleh also complained of drugs and weapons being smuggled from Djibouti. Mr Saleh, a Muslim who is threatened by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, said he didn’t mind the smuggled whiskey “provided it’s good whiskey”.