Hundreds of thousands of State Department documents leaked Sunday revealed a hidden world of backstage international diplomacy, divulging candid comments from world leaders and detailing occasional U.S. pressure tactics aimed at hot spots such as Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea.
The classified diplomatic cables released by online whistleblower WikiLeaks and reported on by news organizations in the United States and Europe provided often unflattering assessments of foreign leaders, including those of Germany and Italy.
The cables also contained revelations about long-simmering nuclear trouble spots, detailing U.S., Israeli and Arab fears of Iran's growing nuclear program; U.S. concerns about Pakistan's atomic arsenal; and U.S. discussions about a united Korean peninsula as a long-term solution to North Korean aggression.
There are also U.S. memos encouraging U.S. 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.
None of the revelations is particularly explosive, but their publication could prove problematic for the officials concerned.
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.
White House Response
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."
It also 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," the White House said.
"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.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley played down the 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."
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 that the administration was trying to cover up alleged evidence of serious "human rights abuse and other criminal behavior" by the U.S. government.
The documents were again available on the WikiLeaks website Sunday afternoon. The site was inaccessible much of the day, and the group claimed that it was under a cyberattack.
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 U.S. concerns about Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs along with fears about regime collapse in Pyongyang.