WikiLeaks Releases Cache Of U.S. Diplomatic Cables
AUDIE CORNISH, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish, in for Guy Raz.
The online whistleblower site WikiLeaks is back at it today, making public the communications between some 270 U.S. embassies and consulates. Our cover story today, chapter three of the WikiLeaks saga, a quarter-million documents in all this time. Most are unclassified, but several thousand are labeled secret.
The Obama administration is condemning the release, which it says could put the lives of diplomats, intelligence officers and others at risk.
The diplomatic cables give fly-on-the-wall accounts of meetings between world leaders, diplomatic horse-trading between countries and candid descriptions of U.S. allies and opposition leaders.
The cables are dense, filled with acronyms and diplomatic speak, but between the code is a candid view of decades of American diplomacy.
Unidentified Man #1: February 25, 2010, Kabul embassy. Senior civilian representative, SCR, Frank Ruggiero met one-on-one with Ahmed Wali Karzai, AWK. Unprompted, AWK raised allegations of his involvement in narcotics, telling the SCR that he's willing to take a polygraph anytime, anywhere to prove his innocence.
Unidentified Man #2: August 24, 2009, Tegucigalpa embassy. Since the June 28 removal and expulsion of President Zelaya by the Honduran armed forces, the embassy has consulted Honduran legal experts. One cannot find a fully unbiased professional legal opinion in Honduras in the current politically charged atmosphere.
Unidentified Man #1: September 29, 2009, Tripoli embassy. Recent firsthand experiences with Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and his staff provided rare insights into Gaddafi's inner circle and personal proclivities. Gaddafi appears to have an intense dislike or fear of staying on upper floors, reportedly prefers not to fly over water and seems to enjoy horse racing and flamenco dancing.
Unidentified Woman #1: July 31, 2009, secretary of State. This cable provides the full text of the new National HUMINT Collection Directive on the United Nations, as well as a request for continued DOS reporting of biographic information relating to the United Nations, telecommunications infrastructure and information systems, current technical specifications, physical layout, planned upgrades to telecommunications infrastructure, details on commercial and private VIP networks, security measures, passwords, personal encryption key and types of VPN versions used.
CORNISH: A very brief sampling of the more than 250,000 dispatches released today by WikiLeaks. NPR's Michele Kelemen is with me now.
Michele, there's a lot to cover, but let's talk about that last cable we just heard. That is a directive to essentially spy on other diplomats at the United Nations. And what have you learned about that?
MICHELE KELEMEN: That's right. It was a cable that was dated July of last year. It asks U.S. diplomats around the world and at U.N. headquarters to provide all this information, as you heard, the biometric information, to gather the phone numbers of U.N. officials, credit card numbers, frequent flyer numbers, their work schedules and other personal information.
The U.S. government apparently wants these diplomats to learn about potential links between U.N. organizations and terrorist organizations and to learn about corruption in the U.N.
This is sure to raise a lot of questions about the role that U.S. diplomats play these days, and the U.N. is not the only target of some of these directives. There are similar ones for other embassies around the world.
CORNISH: Turning to another issue, curbing Iran's nuclear program is one of the Obama administration's goals. And from these cables, it seems as if they're getting some surprising advice from the Arab world. I mean, what were the ambassadors saying?
KELEMEN: Yeah, I mean, these cables indicate that Arab leaders have been privately urging the U.S. to attack Iran, to curtail its nuclear program and to limit its influence in the region.
There was a 2008 cable that quoted Saudi Arabia's ambassador, describing how King Abdullah had been repeatedly urging the U.S. to take action against Iran. And the quote was: He told you to cut off the head of the snake.
The U.S. ambassador to Jordan, in another cable, says that leaders there are wary of U.S. engaging Iran, arguing that that could reward regional hardliners. And the ambassador, Stephen Beecroft, writes that the metaphor most commonly deployed by Jordanians when they talk about Iran is that of an octopus whose tentacles reach out insidiously to manipulate, foment and undermine the best-laid plans of the West and regional moderates.
It says that Iran's tentacles include its allies Qatar and Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
CORNISH: The language in these cables, it's so frank and candid in some ways. And, I mean, talk to us a little bit about what we're learning about U.S. impressions of world leaders through this information.
KELEMEN: That's right. Well, you had at the top the one about Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly last year, that he usually travels with voluptuous blondes. His senior Ukrainian nurse is how they described it.
There were lots of embarrassing things about world leaders. One cable recounted an unusually close relationship between Russia's Vladimir Putin and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.
Another one described how Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plays Robin to Putin's Batman. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel was said to avoid risk and is rarely creative. They also describe President Hamid Karzai as driven by paranoia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been calling a lot of these leaders over the weekend, including Germany and Saudi Arabia, UAE, France, U.K. and Afghanistan, warning them of these potentially embarrassing disclosures.
CORNISH: Michele, that's what the Obama administration is doing privately, but what's been their public response to this so far?
KELEMEN: Yeah, I mean, the White House was reminding people today that these are not expressions of policy. It's just field reporting, which in the words of the White House statement, is candid and often incomplete, and that these cables don't always shape U.S. policy.
That said, the U.S. does worry that these disclosures could put diplomats at risk, as well as their sources, you know, human rights activists, journalists, bloggers.
The New York Times actually said it withheld some of the names of people so as not to endanger them, but this is something that the U.S. worries about. The U.S. State Department's legal adviser warned over the weekend that he fears that this is going to hurt international cooperation.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen.
Michele, thanks for talking with us.
KELEMEN: Thank you, Audie.