WikiLeaks Release Reverberates Across Europe

From Moscow to London to Paris to Rome and beyond, WikiLeaks' release of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables has caused embarrassment, anger and possibly some damage in Washington's relations with European governments.

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The website Wikileaks began publishing thousands of confidential State Department cables yesterday. And today, the diplomatic fallout. Among the cables' most embarrassing revelations are scathing descriptions of Europe's most powerful leaders.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports now on what Europe makes of all this.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Official reactions in Europe have mostly played down damage caused by the revelations. But in government offices all over Europe there was irritation and anger.

In cables from Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel was described as a Teflon politician who steers clear of conflict, is risk-averse and rarely creative. Her Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, got it even worse: lacking gravitas, vain, arrogant, critical of America, and too opportunistic to be trusted.

Nevertheless, a government spokesman said relations with Washington remain robust and close.

But Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the German Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said considerable damage has been done.

Mr. RUPRECHT POLENZ (Chairman, German Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee): (Through Translator) The partners of the United States assume that the things you discuss with your closest ally remain confidential. There are certainly doubts about that now and it will be up to the Americans to eliminate those doubts.

POGGIOLI: As for France, U.S. diplomatic cables described President Nicolas Sarkozy as an emperor with no clothes, thin-skinned and authoritarian.

Budget Minister Francois Baroin said the government would not comment and pledged France would help the U.S. defend diplomatic secrecy.

Minister FRANCOIS BAROIN (Budget Ministry, France): (Through Translator) We're naturally very worried about the release of information of a confidential nature. The protection of nations, it's something very important; it's the protection of men, of women, of citizens.

POGGIOLI: As for the special relationship between London and Washington, the cables dealt it a serious blow. Prime Minister David Cameron was portrayed as a political lightweight. And a former government minister, whose name was withheld, was described as a hound dog who chased women.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chair of the British Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, expressed anger.

Sir MALCOLM RIFKIND (Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee, British Parliament): Some of the information will severely damage operations against terrorism, the strategy of Western and democratic governments deal with countries like Iran or North Korea who are trying to develop nuclear weapons. And it is very, very disgraceful.

POGGIOLI: Some of the most scathing comments in the leaked U.S. cables were dedicated to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, described as an alpha dog who rules a virtual mafia state, dominated by corrupt businessmen and the security forces. By contrast, one cable said President Dmitry Medvedev plays Robin to Putin's Batman.

Russian officials were clearly annoyed. Putin's press secretary said fictional Hollywood heroes hardly deserve comment.

Putin crops up also in several cables concerning Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, described as Putin's mouthpiece in Europe. The cables show the State Department wanted to know about possible private business ties between the two.

Another cable describes Berlusconi as feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader; said to have hosted wild parties to cover his physical and political weakness.

Today, Berlusconi reacted with disdain.

Prime Minister SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Italy): (Through Translator) You can't take seriously statements made by third-ranking embassy functionaries who obviously get their information from the leftist media. And besides, I've never been to a wild party.

POGGIOLI: Overall, European officials did not seem surprised by the opinions expressed in the U.S. cables; most had been aired in the press. Rather, Europeans appeared dismayed that the basic rules of the hallowed game of diplomacy have been broken.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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