Contents of a quarter million diplomatic cables spilled; possible reverberations around the world

The United States was catapulted into a worldwide diplomatic crisis on Sunday, with the leaking to the Guardian and other international media outlets of more than 250,000 classified cables from its embassies, many sent as recently as February this year.

At the start of a series of daily extracts from the U.S. embassy cables — many of which are designated “secret” — the Guardian can disclose that Arab leaders are privately urging an air strike on Iran and that U.S. officials have been instructed to spy on the U.N.'s leadership.

These two revelations alone would be likely to reverberate around the world. But the secret dispatches which were obtained by WikiLeaks, the whistleblowers' website, also reveal Washington's evaluation of many other highly sensitive international issues.

These include a major shift in relations between China and North Korea, Pakistan's growing instability and details of clandestine U.S. efforts to combat Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Among scores of other disclosures that are likely to cause uproar, the cables detail:

Grave fears in Washington and London over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme

Alleged links between the Russian government and organised crime.

Devastating criticism of the U.K.'s military operations in Afghanistan.

Claims of inappropriate behaviour by a member of the British royal family.

The U.S. has particularly intimate dealings with Britain, and some of the dispatches from the London embassy in Grosvenor Square will make uncomfortable reading in Whitehall and Westminster. They range from serious political criticisms of David Cameron to requests for specific intelligence about individual MPs.

The cache of cables contains specific allegations of corruption and against foreign leaders, as well as harsh criticism by U.S. embassy staff of their host governments, from tiny islands in the Caribbean to China and Russia.

The material includes a reference to Vladimir Putin as an “alpha-dog,” Hamid Karzai as being “driven by paranoia” and Angela Merkel allegedly “avoids risk and is rarely creative.” There is also a comparison between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler.

The cables name countries involved in financing terror groups, and describe a near “environmental disaster” last year over a rogue shipment of enriched uranium. They disclose technical details of secret U.S.-Russian nuclear missile negotiations in Geneva, and include a profile of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who they say is accompanied everywhere by a “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse.

The cables cover Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's activities under the Obama administration, as well as thousands of files from the George Bush presidency. Clinton personally led frantic damage limitation this weekend as Washington prepared foreign governments for the revelations. She contacted leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, France and Afghanistan.

U.S. Ambassadors in other capitals were instructed to brief their hosts in advance of the release of unflattering pen-portraits or nakedly frank accounts of transactions with the U.S. which they had thought would be kept quiet. Washington now faces a difficult task in convincing contacts around the world that any future conversations will remain confidential.

“We are all bracing for what may be coming and condemn WikiLeaks for the release of classified material,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “It will place lives and interests at risk. It is irresponsible.”

The State Department's legal adviser has written to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his London lawyer, warning that the cables were obtained illegally and that publication would place at risk “the lives of countless innocent individuals…ongoing military operations…and cooperation between countries.”

The electronic archive of embassy dispatches from around the world was allegedly downloaded by a U.S. soldier earlier this year and passed to WikiLeaks. Mr. Assange made them available to the Guardian and four other newspapers: The New York Times, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in France and El País in Spain. All five plan to publish extracts from the most significant cables, but have decided neither to “dump” the entire dataset into the public domain, nor to publish names that would endanger innocent individuals. WikiLeaks says that, contrary to the State Department's fears, it also initially intends to post only limited cable extracts, and to redact identities.

The dispatches also shed light on older diplomatic issues. One cable, for example, reveals, that Nelson Mandela was “furious” when a top adviser stopped him meeting Margaret Thatcher shortly after his release from prison to explain why the ANC objected to her policy of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid regime. “We understand Mandela was keen for a Thatcher meeting but that [appointments secretary Zwelakhe] Sisulu argued successfully against it,” according to the cable. It continues: “Mandela has on several occasions expressed his eagerness for an early meeting with Thatcher to express the ANC's objections to her policy. We were consequently surprised when the meeting didn't materialise on his mid-April visit to London and suspected that ANC hardliners had nixed Mandela's plans.”

The U.S. embassy cables are marked “Sipdis” — secret internet protocol distribution. They were compiled as part of a programme under which selected dispatches, considered moderately secret but suitable for sharing with other agencies, would be automatically loaded on to secure embassy websites, and linked with the military's Siprnet internet system.

They are classified at various levels up to “SECRET NOFORN” [no foreigners]. More than 11,000 are marked secret, while around 9,000 of the cables are marked noforn. The embassies which sent most cables were Ankara, Baghdad, Amman, Kuwait and Tokyo.

More than 3 million U.S. government personnel and soldiers, many extremely junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material, even though the cables contain the identities of foreign informants, often sensitive contacts in dictatorial regimes. Some are marked “protect” or “strictly protect.”

Last spring, 22-year-old intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was charged with leaking many of these cables, along with a gun-camera video of an Apache helicopter crew mistakenly killing two Reuters news agency employees in Baghdad in 2007, which was subsequently posted by WikiLeaks. Manning is facing a court martial.

In July and October WikiLeaks also published thousands of leaked military reports from Afghanistan and Iraq. These were made available for analysis beforehand to the Guardian, along with Der Spiegel and The New York Times.

A former hacker, Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to the U.S. authorities, said the soldier had told him in chat messages that the cables revealed “how the first world exploits the third, in detail.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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