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U.S. tries to contain damage from leaked documents

Published: Monday, Nov. 29 2010 9:54 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — Bristling over the unauthorized release of more than a quarter million classified State Department documents, the Obama White House on Monday ordered a government-wide review of how agencies safeguard sensitive information.

Soon after, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters at the Justice Department that the administration would prosecute if violations of federal law are found in a criminal investigation of the incident.

The weekend release of documents reflecting, in some cases, unflattering assessments of world leaders has caused embarrassment to the administration. The director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, Jacob Lew, said in ordering the agency-wide assessment Monday that the disclosures are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

The U.S. documents contained raw comments normally muffled by diplomatic politesse: Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah pressing the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake" by taking action against Iran's nuclear program. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described as "feckless" and "vain." German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed as "risk averse and rarely creative."

Publication of the secret memos and documents made public by the online whistle-blower Wikileaks Sunday amplified widespread global alarm about Iran's nuclear ambitions. It also unveiled occasional U.S. pressure tactics aimed at hot spots in Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea. The leaks disclosed bluntly candid impressions from both diplomats and other world leaders about America's allies and foes.

It was, said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, the "Sept. 11 of world diplomacy."

In the wake of the massive document dump by online whistleblower WikiLeaks and numerous media reports detailing their contents, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to address the diplomatic repercussions later Monday. Clinton may have to confront the fallout first hand after she leaves Washington on a four-nation tour of Central Asia and the Middle East — a region that figures prominently in the leaked documents.

Clinton did not speak about the furor in her first public appearance since the documents were released when she appeared for photo opportunity with the visiting foreign minister of Turkey.

But while Clinton and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu were all smiles during their joint appearance at the State Department, Davutoglu said his agenda for the meeting would include "the leak(ed) documents."

NATO ally Turkey is mentioned prominently in some of the cables.

Most of the disclosures focused on familiar diplomatic issues that have long stymied U.S. officials and their foreign counterparts — the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, China's growth as a superpower, the frustrations of combating terrorism.

But their publication could become problems for the officials concerned and for any secret initiatives they had preferred to keep quiet. The massive release of material intended for diplomatic eyes was quickly ruffling feathers in foreign capitals despite efforts by U.S. diplomats in recent days to shore up relations with key allies in advance of the leaks.

At Clinton's first stop in Astana, Kazakhstan, she will be attending a summit of officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a diplomatic grouping that includes many officials from countries cited in the leaked cables.

In London, Steve Field, a spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron, said "it's important that governments are able to operate on the basis of confidentiality of information." French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said "we strongly deplore the deliberate and irresponsible release of American diplomatic correspondence by the site Wikileaks.:"

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