By Matthew Lee
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Bristling over the unauthorized release of more than a quarter million classified State Department documents, the White House ordered a government-wide review on Monday, Nov. 29, of how agencies safeguard sensitive information.
Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters at the Justice Department that the administration would prosecute if violations of federal law are found in a criminal investigation of the incident.
The weekend release of documents reflecting, in some cases, unflattering assessments of world leaders has caused 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 Monday that the disclosures are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
Publication of the secret memos and documents made public on Sunday by the online whistle-blower WikiLeaks amplified widespread global alarm about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It also unveiled occasional U.S. pressure tactics aimed at hot spots in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea. The leaks disclosed bluntly candid impressions from both diplomats and other world leaders about America’s allies and foes.
It was, said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, the “Sept. 11 of world diplomacy.”
In the aftermath of the massive document dump by WikiLeaks and numerous media reports detailing their contents, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the diplomatic repercussions on Monday. Clinton left Washington for a four-nation tour of Central Asia and the Middle East — a region that figures prominently in the leaked documents.
In her first public comments since the weekend release of the classified State Department cables, Clinton said that WikiLeaks acted illegally in posting the material. She said the Obama administration was “aggressively pursuing” those responsible for the leak.
She said the leaks erode trust between nations. But Clinton also said that she was “confident” that U.S. partnerships would withstand the challenges posed by the latest revelations.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, called the release very damaging.
“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?’ ”
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, Julian Assange, Attorney General Robert McClelland said law enforcement officials were investigating whether WikiLeaks broke any laws.
The encrypted e-mails and other documents unearthed new revelations about long-simmering nuclear trouble spots, detailing fears of Iran’s growing nuclear program, American concerns about Pakistan’s atomic arsenal, and U.S. discussions about a united Korean peninsula as a long-term solution to North Korean aggression.
None of the disclosures appeared particularly explosive, 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 only is sure to ruffle feathers in foreign capitals, a certainty that already prompted U.S. diplomats to scramble in recent days to shore up relations with key allies in advance of the leaks.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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 U.S. foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world,” the White House said.
WikiLeaks’ Assange claimed the administration was trying to cover up alleged 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.
But extracts of the more than 250,000 documents posted online by news outlets that had been given advance copies of the documents showed deep U.S. concerns about Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs along with fears about regime collapse in Pyongyang.
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 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 United States 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 paper also cited documents showing that the United States 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 message from the U.S. 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 “coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts, and Internet outlaws.”
Le Monde said another 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. ♦