State Department Secrets Revealed How America Views the World

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama

By SPIEGEL Staff

Part 2: American Diplomacy Shaken to the Core


America's ambassadors can be merciless in their assessments of the countries in which they are stationed. That's their job. Kenya? A swamp of flourishing corruption extending across the country. Almost every single sentence in the embassy reports speaks with disdain of the government of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga

Turkey hardly comes away any less scathed in the cables. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the cables allege, governs with the help of a cabal of incompetent advisors. US embassy officials in Ankara depict a country on a path to an Islamist future.

Italy? Secretary of State Clinton wants her ambassadors in Moscow and Rome to check whether there is anything to the rumors that Italian President Silvio Berlusconi and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have private business ties. According to the dispatches, the tip-off came from a Georgian diplomat. Asked by SPIEGEL to comment on the allegations, the Italian, Georgian and Russian government promptly and angrily denied them.

Mrs. Clinton will undoubtedly have a lot of work on her hands restoring the faith of her partners abroad and patching up relations with politicians and states that were painted in less-than-rosy colors in the leaked cables. Without a doubt, American diplomacy has been shaken to the core.

The potentially explosive effect of releasing confidential embassy dispatches is demonstrated on the rare occasions when conversations between leading politicians are made public in an untimely manner.

For instance, the German government was deeply embarrassed in the summer of 2001 when SPIEGEL published the transcript of a conversation between the then US president, George W. Bush, and his honorable guest, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. As he was obliged to do, German Ambassador Jürgen Chrobog took notes on the meeting. The publication of Chrobog's report unveiled what the two not particularly close Western allies thought about the world at large. The fallout from the latest leak could prove thousands of times more powerful.

'I Want People to See the Truth'

As with the close to 92,000 documents on the war in Afghanistan at the end of July and the almost 400,000 documents on the Iraq war recently released, the State Department cables were also leaked to the WikiLeaks whistleblower platform.

There is much evidence to suggest that WikiLeaks' source for the material is a young private named Bradley Manning; a 23-year-old US Army intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq. For several months, Manning worked at Forward Operation Base Hammer, an outpost near the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where he trawled through the secret documents to which he had access.

"If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week … what would you do?" Manning later wrote to a well-known former hacker named Adrian Lamo, whom he had met online. Lamo logged their conversations, and if you believe these transcripts it was Manning who copied the State Department dispatches. His motive: "I want people to see the truth."

Even though the reports had been published, they were already having an immense effect. The Pentagon had set up a team of 120 employees to check whether the material already released has wrought any damage. CIA chief Leon Panetta said in a statement in November that "our government is taking a hard line."

Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, has become one of the most hated people in the US. Swedish prosecutors also have an arrest warrant out against him on allegations he committed rape. But -- so far, at least -- the material he distributes over the Internet has proved unassailable. Although some of Assange's own colleagues have abandoned him, the organization as such seems intact.

By contrast, the alleged provider of the material, Manning, faces the full wrath of the law. Adrian Lamo, the ex-hacker to whom Manning confessed to in May, notified the FBI, and Manning was arrested at the end of the month. He is now being held in solitary confinement at Quantico Prison in Virginia.

The analyst clearly knew what he was doing when he passed on the dispatches. "Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public," he wrote.

'Damage to Our National Security'

Just as with the first two WikiLeaks dumps, the organization made the material available to select news outlets in advance to check and analyze. Once again, SPIEGEL viewed, analyzed and vetted the materials. It then presented the findings of its research to American government bodies, who were "incredibly upset" that the material had been made public. "We condemn what WikiLeaks has done," said State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley, who added that the revelations do "damage to our national security and our interest."

In most cases, the magazine has sought to protect the identities of the Americans' informants, unless the person who served as the informant was senior enough to be politically relevant. In some cases, the US government expressed security concerns, and SPIEGEL accepted a number of such objections. In other cases, however, SPIEGEL felt the public interest in reporting the news was greater than the threat to American security.

As with the previously leaked documents, the embassy reports were sent across a confidential news network, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNet for short. SIPRNet was expanded considerably from 2001 to improve communication between the US State Department and the Department of Defense after the 9/11 attacks showed that the terrorists had not been identified in time because each agency kept its knowledge to itself.

Today, 2.5 million Americans at a whole host of departments and agencies, though primarily the Department of Defense, have access to this data. The SIPRNet material is used particularly frequently by Pentagon employees. It can be accessed from specific computers that are also found at the operational headquarters of the armed forces. The login procedures and password are changed about every five months. Even the material classified "top secret" and distributed via a separate login is available to no fewer than 850,000 Americans. The publication of the embassy cables is therefore bound to happen eventually.

Around half of the leaked cables aren't classified at all, and slightly less, 40.5 percent, were classified as "confidential." Six percent of the reports, or 16,652 cables, are labeled as "secret", and of those, 4,330 are so explosive that they are classified "NOFORN," meaning access should not be made available to non-US nationals. Taken together, the cables provide enough raw text to fill 66 years' worth of weekly SPIEGEL magazines. Although one report dates back to 1966, the vast majority of the documents were filed after the distribution system was set up.

The most prolific embassy in terms of cables sent is that in the Turkish capital, Ankara, which dispatched almost 8,000 messages to Washington. Not surprisingly, the second highest number of reports stems from the largest US embassy of all -- that in Baghdad -- at about 6,700 reports. But the number of cables says little about the importance of the diplomatic mission. Three-thousand were sent from the Afghan capital, Kabul, the same number as were filed by the US mission in Zimbabwe. And at 1,700 reports, US diplomats in Vienna sent as many messages home as their colleagues in Berlin. Oddly enough given that Britain is America's closest Western ally, the US embassy in London was one of the missions that filed reports only relatively seldom.

Much in the material was noted and sent because those compiling the reports or their dialogue partners were certain that their transcripts would not be made public for the next 25 years. That may also explain why the ambassadors and emissaries from Washington were so willing to relay gossip and hearsay back to their masters at the State Department.

One cable from the Moscow Embassy, for example, said Russian first lady Svetlana Medvedeva had drawn up a list of officials who should be made to "suffer" in their careers because they had been disloyal to her husband, President Dimitri Medvedev. Another reports that the wife of Azerbaijani leader Ilham Aliyev has had so much plastic surgery that it is possible to confuse her for one of her daughters from a distance, although she can barely move her face anymore. US diplomats also reported that the eccentric Libyan leader, Colonel Gadhafi, no longer goes anywhere without being accompanied by his busty Ukrainian nurse.

What makes the documents particularly appealing, though, is how many politicians speak the unvarnished truth -- either as they see it or as they would like to see it -- confident that their musings will remain under wraps. However the leaked files enable many political developments around the world to be documented in the words of the protagonists themselves, and therefore foster a better understanding of the world. That is justification enough for SPIEGEL to disregard state confidentiality regulations in the interests of greater transparence.

What, though, do the thousands of documents prove? Do they really show a US which has the world on a leash? Are Washington's embassies still self-contained power centers in their host countries?

Most of the material made available to us relates to the time after America had reached the zenith of its power. In the last decade of the 20th century, the triumphal era after the end of the Cold War, the US saw itself as the "indispensable nation," to quote former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But that era appears to be over. And even this exceptional period was not a good one for America's diplomats.

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