The US ordered a sweeping review of access to sensitive government information today in the wake of the massive and potentially embarrassing WikiLeaks release of more than 250,000 classified documents.
The State Department memos, reflecting in some cases unflattering assessments of world leaders left the administration feeling vulnerable.
Publication of the secret memos and documents also increased widespread global alarm about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
And it revealed occasional US 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 “September 11 of world diplomacy.”
In the aftermath of the massive document dump by online whistle-blower WikiLeaks and numerous media reports detailing their contents, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected to address the diplomatic repercussions.
Mrs Clinton may have to confront the fallout first hand after she leaves Washington on a four-nation tour of Central Asia and the Middle East – a region that figures prominently in the leaked documents.
The encrypted emails and other documents unearthed new revelations about long-simmering nuclear trouble spots, detailing US, Israeli and Arab world fears of Iran’s growing nuclear programme, American concerns about Pakistan’s atomic arsenal and US 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 US diplomats to attempt in recent days to shore up relations with key allies in advance of the leaks.
At Mrs Clinton’s first stop in Kazakhstan she will be attending a summit of officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a diplomatic grouping that includes many officials from countries cited in the leaked cables.
The documents published by The New York Times, France’s Le Monde, Britain’s Guardian, 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.
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.”
US officials may also have to mend fences after revelations that they gathered personal information on other diplomats. The leaks cited American memos encouraging US 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.
The State Department played down the diplomatic spying allegations. “Our diplomats are just that, diplomats,” said a spokesman.
“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 US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world,” it said.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claimed the administration was trying to cover up alleged evidence of serious “human rights abuse and other criminal behaviour” by the US government.
WikiLeaks posted the documents just hours after it claimed its website had been hit by a cyber attack that made the site inaccessible for much of the day.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said later that the leak was an attack not only against the US but the international community as well, and would erode trust among nations.
In her first public comments since the weekend release of the classified State Department cables, Ms Clinton said that WikiLeaks acted illegally in posting the material. She said the Obama administration was “aggressively pursuing” those responsible for the leak.
Despite the damage, Ms Clinton said she was “confident” that US partnerships would withstand the challenges posed by revelations.
Ms Clinton told reporters at the State Department: “This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests, 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 to solve shared problems.”
She would not comment on the specific contents of the cables but said the administration “deeply regrets” any embarrassment caused by their disclosure. Many of them contain candid and often unflattering assessments of foreign leaders, both friends and foes.
She acknowledged that the newly released cables that revealed deep concerns among Arab world leaders about Iran’s nuclear ambitions had a 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 neighbours”.