'Typical Cocktail Party Chatter': Berlin Goes into Damage-Control Mode on Unflattering Cables

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The German government is trying to appear laid-back in its reaction to the secret US diplomatic cables which portray senior German politicians in an unflattering light. But in reality foreign policy experts are concerned about the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship, warning of a "deep rupture" in the usual diplomatic communications.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle: The diplomatic cables contained little that was flattering about Germany's top politicians. Zoom
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Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle: The diplomatic cables contained little that was flattering about Germany's top politicians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is "rarely creative," while Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is "arrogant." And Horst Seehofer, the head of the conservative Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, is "uniformed about basic things."

The above statements represent just a few of the spicier quotes from secret cables that the US Embassy in Berlin prepared for the State Department in Washington. They form part of a collection of 251,287 reports from American diplomats and US State Department directives, which are now being published by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks and which SPIEGEL has analyzed.

The publication of the secret dispatches has sent a shockwave through Berlin's political scene, putting Chancellor Merkel and her ministers in damage-control mode.

'Robust' Relationship

No one in the German government seems prepared to express themselves as clearly as Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who described the leaks as the "Sept. 11 of world diplomacy." Senior members of Merkel's coalition of the CDU, CSU and Westerwelle's business-friendly Free Democratic Party are mainly concerned with saving face and sitting out the embarrassing revelations.

On Monday, the chancellor sent her spokesman Steffen Seibert to talk to the press. Germany's "robust" relationship with Washington would not be tarnished "in any way," he said. The two countries had a deep friendship that had developed over decades and which would "not be seriously damaged" by the release of information from the documents obtained from WikiLeaks, he said.

Westerwelle also tried to appear cool in his reaction, telling journalists in Berlin that he had already had to read plenty of uncomfortable "other things" that the media had written about him. He also took pains to play down the revelation, contained in cables from the US Embassy in Berlin, that a young FDP politician had acted as an informer for the Americans. "I don't believe this story," he said.

'Cocktail Party Chatter'

For his part, CSU leader Horst Seehofer said that the WikiLeaks releases merely contained "typical Berlin cocktail party chatter." He said he hadn't found "a single new argument" in the reports, adding that "everything has already been written umpteen times." He himself had had breakfast with US Ambassador Philip Murphy just on Friday, he said, adding that the atmosphere was very friendly and that he would like to meet him again. Murphy's name appears often in the leaked memos, where he says unflattering things about leading German politicians.

The apparently relaxed reaction from leading German politicians might suggest they are largely indifferent to the leaks -- but that's not the case. Instead, they are sublimating their anger at the US diplomats into attacks on WikiLeaks.

"This is illegal data that has been acquired through criminal means and which is now being used to make money," said Westerwelle. He added that he could only hope that the publication will have "no adverse effects on the security of our country and our allies." Outside Europe, people are being put "in danger of their lives" as a result of the leaks, he said.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert also warned that the WikiLeaks revelations would have "serious consequences" which would "affect other parts of the world."

Damaging the Trans-Atlantic Relationship

But just how, exactly, has WikiLeaks endangered German security? That's a question that the German government is not answering.

Instead, the Berlin political establishment is mainly worried about the impact on Germany's friendship with the US. The contents of the secret cables have done more than superficial damage to the supposedly robust trans-Atlantic relationship.

Ambassador Murphy has spoken of a challenge for the German-American relationship. One of his predecessors, John Kornblum, gave a more pessimistic appraisal of the situation, telling German public broadcaster ZDF that diplomacy "must work on the basis of trust, and if that trust is broken, as is now the case, then of course you need to start back at zero." In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Kornblum said he assumed "there will be a great deal of drama."

Ruprecht Polenz, a CDU politician who is chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, said it was now up to the US to make clear what security measures would be taken in the future. "Otherwise the Americans will not hear frank words from their allies so often," he said.

The German politicians' anger is only being expressed in small, diplomatic doses. Take for example, the German Foreign Ministry spokesman who said that German ambassadors are also expected to provide "analytical reports" from their host country. In the American reports, however, words like "aggressive" appear now and again, he said, for example in relation to the shelling of a South Korean island by North Korea. The remark could be interpreted to mean that German diplomats remain objective and analytical while their American colleagues let their personal opinions interfere.

Political Spats

The cables reveal how carefully the US Embassy in Berlin recorded all the minor and major German political spats that were reported to them. They include remarks from top politicians such as the FDP's Rainer Brüderle, the current German economics minister, about the appointment of the CSU's Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg to the same position in 2009. Brüderle told American diplomats that "as far as economics is concerned, it seems to be enough these days for the CSU to find someone who can read and write."

Guttenberg himself later returned the favor in a statement he made regarding FDP leader Guido Westerwelle. In relation to the issue of increasing the German contingent of troops in Afghanistan, Guttenberg, who is now defense minister, complained to Ambassador Murphy that the German foreign minister had not wanted to send a single extra soldier.

Now that the US's informants in Germany have seen how off-the-record remarks can be made public, it seems unlikely that anyone will want to speak openly to the Americans, at least until the US government has demonstrated that its diplomatic cables will be better protected than they have been up until now.

Frost Forecast

The WikiLeaks publications will lead to "a deep rupture in the usual diplomatic communication processes," says Munich-based political scientist Werner Weidenfeld, who served as coordinator of US-German relations for more than a decade under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Such communication depends on conversations taking place in an atmosphere of trust, he says -- a trust that has now been "dramatically reduced."

Weidenfeld was not surprised by the fact that sensitive diplomatic material had been leaked, saying that was something that had always happened. But the scale of the revelations was new, he said. "This is sensational and has had a huge impact, which will lead to US diplomats' informants exercising greater caution."

Weidenfeld says he expects German-American relations, which are in any case "already cool," to continue to cool down -- and maybe even turn frosty.

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Reaction from the US Government
In a statement, the White House has condemned the publication of "private diplomatic discussions" with foreign governments by SPIEGEL and four other international media on Sunday. Click on the link below to read the statement in full.
White House Statement
We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.

By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.

To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.

By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.


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