Leaked Documents Provide View Into U.S. Diplomacy

The Obama administration is in the midst of international damage control now that WikiLeaks has released 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables. The cables cover an array of subjects including assessments of terrorist and nuclear threats, and offer candid assessments of world leaders.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

The Obama administration is in the midst of international damage control, now that WikiLeaks has released a quarter of a million U.S. diplomatic cables. The secret documents provide a rare glimpse into U.S. diplomacy, and it's not always pretty. What the White House is calling stolen cables include candid comments about world leaders in constant deal-making - some it unsavory.

NPR's Michele Kellerman joins us now to talk about some of the revelations. Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, these documents that have been dumped, if you will, are much broader than what WikiLeaks has done before. And tell us about some of the more candid moments that you find there.

KELEMEN: Oh, there are plenty of them, especially when they come to assessments of world leaders. You have Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who plays Robin to Vladimir Putin's Batman. You have Germany's Teflon chancellor, Angela Merkel, who avoids risk and is rarely creative. They describe Italy's Silvio Berlusconi as feckless and vain, and talks about how he hosts wild parties - which I dont think was much news, but there it was, out in print.

And then there's Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who apparently travels with a voluptuous, blond, Ukrainian nurse.

There were also embarrassing moments for someone like the leader of Yemen who, according to one cable, told the U.S. that he was worried about drug smuggling from Djibouti, but wouldnt mind whiskey smuggling as long as it's good whiskey.

MONTAGNE: So you know - as you suggest, though, some of these are more embarrassing than surprising, even. But some of this is quite serious.

Iran was a major topic in many of these diplomatic cables, with Arab leaders seeming to push for much tougher action to curb Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions than I think most of us would know about. What more did we learn about?

KELEMEN: Yeah. You know, we've often heard that Arab leaders are nervous about Iran's influence in the region. They're nervous about the nuclear program, but we've never heard it with such candor.

In one cable, Qatar's prime minister describes his country's relationship with Iran this way. He says: They lie to us, and we lie to them. In another, the king of Saudi Arabia is quoted as saying the U.S. should cut off the head of the snake. And he seemed to be pushing for military action.

MONTAGNE: Against Iran.

KELEMEN: Against Iran. And Jordanian officials reportedly described Iran as an octopus whose tentacles include Syria, Qatar, Hezbollah, Hamas and Shiia communities throughout the region.

Not all were advocating for a military solution. You had Abu Dhabi's crown prince saying that military action would delay Iran's nuclear program but wouldnt derail it completely. And he apparently advocated another way, and it was to quote, split the Iranians from the inside.

MONTAGNE: And there were also directives from Secretary Clinton that seem to blur the line between diplomacy and espionage. What is exactly - give us some examples of what U.S. diplomats were asked to do. What does the U.S. have to say about that now?

KELEMEN: Well, Secretary Clinton, in one of these directives, encouraged diplomats to gather all sorts of personal information, particularly about top U.N. officials. And that included biometric data, credit card numbers, frequent flier numbers, and other personal information.

The U.N. response has been sort of muted, just saying its operations are transparent. And U.N. officials frequently brief member-states, including the U.S., and it wouldnt comment on the authenticity of these leaked documents.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted last night that contrary to some of the reporting around this, U.S. diplomats are diplomats and not intelligence assets. He says that diplomats collect information that shape U.S. policies and actions, and that diplomats for all nations do the same thing.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, what are the implications here for U.S. diplomacy and international diplomacy?

KELEMEN: Well, a lot of this really reflects badly on the U.S. Countries might not like what U.S. ambassadors are saying, and might not look to the U.S. as a trustworthy partner. An Israeli paper said today that U.S. ambassadors come out looking like a bunch of idiots who can't keep a secret, and who gossip. And German papers called it a disaster for U.S. diplomacy.

So the U.S. has to really reach out to a lot of people now, and make sure this doesnt translate into troubles for cooperation on terrorism and non-proliferation, and other issues.

MONTAGNE: Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michele Kelemen.

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