Mideast Reacts To WikiLeaks Document Dump

The release of hundreds of thousands of secret documents by the website WikiLeaks has raised fears that U.S. foreign policy has been compromised. The diplomatic cables shed light on the way Middle Eastern countries view Iran's nuclear capabilities, among other things. Host Michel Martin speaks with Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Dubai-based TV network Al-Arabiya, about regional reaction to the leak.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later this hour, we will wrap up our series of conversations that we've been having in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. Today, we look at a group within the group, so-called black Indians. Those who claim both African and Native American ancestry.

But first, we dip into that story that has been dominating the headlines and roiling diplomatic relations. It's the release of thousands of pages of correspondence previously thought to be secret by the website WikiLeaks and published by a number of newspapers around the world. Among other things, the cables shed light on the way many Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia view Iran's nuclear capability.

In a Monday news conference, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the leaks. Here's what she had to say.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (State Department): If anything, any of the comments that are being reported on, allegedly from the cables, confirm the fact that Iran poses a very serious threat in the eyes of many of her neighbors and a serious concern far beyond her region.

MARTIN: We wanted to know more about exactly that. So we've called Hisham Melhem of the television news network Al-Arabiya. He's Washington bureau chief, but he is in Dubai at the moment where Al-Arabiya is based. And he joins us by phone from just off the newsroom there. Hisham, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. HISHAM MELHEM (Washington Bureau Chief, Al-Arabiya): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, how big of a story is it there? As you can imagine, it's been dominating headlines here. What about over there?

Mr. MELHEM: It's dominating the headlines here. I mean we've done reports, talk show programs, hosted people from Washington, from Europe, from the Arab world. It's a major story, although many people are dealing with it somewhat selectively. And what is fascinating is the official silence of those leaders who are mentioned in the documents.

MARTIN: So, no press conference like the one that Hillary Clinton just held? Nothing like that? No public statement so far from anybody?

Mr. MELHEM: That would be practically impossible. It would be great news for us as journalists, but this is in the realm of the things to wish for and not necessarily a reality. In fact, the spokesperson of the Saudi government today essentially said these documents do not concern us. We were not part of it, therefore, we are not going to comment on it in any way, shape or form. And that was the extent of it. There were no secrets revealed, although the nuggets and the details are just fascinating.

MARTIN: OK. Could you help us understand, which of the stories are getting the most attention? Let me just enumerate a couple of the stories that have been important here. One is, of course, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, urging the U.S. to take action on Iran's nuclear program. That was the issue that Secretary of State Clinton was talking about yesterday, saying Washington should, quote, "cut off the head of the snake," unquote, before it's too late.

Then, of course, there are other comments about the Afghan president's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. He was referred to as corrupt and a narcotics trafficker. There was the United Arab Emirates story, where former Afghan vice president was caught with $52 million in cash. And then President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen agreeing to cover up the U.S. bombing of suspected terrorist sites in Yemen by saying to U.S. General David Petraeus, we'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.

Mr. MELHEM: Right.

MARTIN: Which of those stories is getting the most interest?

Mr. MELHEM: Iran. I would say Iran. Iran because this whole region on the Arab side of the Gulf, I mean, they chafe because they don't like to live in the shadow of a rising assertive Iranian state. And therefore, the fear of Iran and all of these documents related to the discussions about what to do with the Iranian nuclear program, or the way Iran throw its weight around, as in supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon or supporting the Syrians, Iran was the main story.

I mean the document concerning the conversations between General Petraeus and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the leader of Yemen, it's colorful, it's funny. We knew that he likes quality whiskey. Fine. Big deal. What is interesting, and that's maybe not even covered by the American media, is how these information will be used by the opposition, particularly the Islamist opposition. This is going to provide huge fodder for those who are critical of these regimes in the region. Wait and see how they are going to use this material in the blogospheres. And they are very good, unfortunately, in the way they use the blogosphere.

So this will be used as a recruiting tool. And there is a huge deal of ammunition of this sort that is going to be used by the opposition to taint these governments and to present their cooperation with the United States as collusion with the United States.

MARTIN: So, if you just joined us, we're speaking to Hisham Melhem. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya. We're talking about Middle East reaction to the cables and other official U.S. communications leaked by the website WikiLeaks, a lot of it involving conversations between U.S. officials with and about Middle Eastern leaders. He's actually in Dubai at the moment.

And Hisham, what about the Iranian reaction to this? I mean, you're saying that a lot of these relationships and the perceptions that many people have of these various leaders was known, even if not publicly discussed. But the insiders knew that these were the views that they had.

Mr. MELHEM: Right.

MARTIN: How is Iran reacting to this?

Mr. MELHEM: If you judge it by the reaction of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which is not necessarily in my mind the final reaction or the real reaction, if you judge it by what he said publicly when he said this is not a huge problem for us, we have friends and we have allies in this region and we don't believe these documents and they are fabricated or something to that effect.

Now, he is either incredibly naive, or he is incredibly cunning. So that's his way of saying, look, we know how you think, what you think about the Iranian nuclear program, but we're not going to discuss it in public. You will ultimately make it difficult for you to be in bed with the Americans against us. And you know that we know. And let's keep it that way.

MARTIN: Hisham, finally, many of the U.S. officials are very upset that these documents were published because they feel that it will have a chilling effect on, you know, the ability of diplomats in the field to communicate with Washington and offer their candid assessment.

Mr. MELHEM: Yeah. True, true.

MARTIN: So there's a lot of, in fact, you know, in looking at some of the message boards for some of these newspapers, members of the public are upset, saying this is wrong. You have no right to publish these. I'm just wondering what the reaction is where you are. Do people find it strange?

Mr. MELHEM: People find it extremely difficult to fathom that these leaks would take place and the United States government, or some people in government will not be in collusion with these people who are involved in the leaks. And there's a lot of conspiracy theories here; people say, well, you know, the United States maybe wanted to embarrass some of these leaders here, to say, well, look, what they tell us privately is not necessarily what they say publicly. To them, they don't understand the history and the tradition of leaks in the United States. And they don't want to believe that this is something that happened without the knowledge and the collusion and the involvement of people in the American government. So conspiracy theories will continue to swirl around this thing.

There is sometimes the view that the United States government is omniscient and omnipresent and that if they really wanted to stop WikiLeaks from distributing these documents, then they could have done so, or that they could have stopped further leaks after what happened in the summer with the leaks involving the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.

So here we have a different take on it. People are raising questions as to the real motive behind these leaks. And it's difficult sometimes for me to try to explain that the American media lives on leaks and that we've had leaks that are extremely major in recent American history, like the Pentagon papers. But now because our business, that is the media, has changed a lot to the Internet and all that, all it takes is one man or one person to have access to these documents and they will be spread all over the world instantly.

MARTIN: Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief for the television network Al-Arabiya. He joined us by phone from the network's home base, Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Hisham, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MELHEM: Thank you.

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