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Outrage and Apologies Washington Fights to Rebuild Battered Reputation

Few leaks have ever caused so much anger and shock as the publication of the US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been trying to repair the damage done to Washington's reputation, while some on the right have even called for Julian Assange's execution. By SPIEGEL Staff.

Her face has seemed frozen in place for days. She looks peaked, thin-lipped and serious, very serious. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is currently enduring the consequences of what is probably the biggest indiscretion in the history of diplomacy, and it shows.

Clinton, who has embarked on a damage-control trip around the world, sharply condemned the publication of the embassy cables by the website WikiLeaks, calling it a "very irresponsible, thoughtless act that put at risk the lives of innocent people all over the world."

"Secretary Clinton is literally working night and day in conversations with countless leaders around the world to try as best we can not only to express regret but to work through these issues," Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns told US lawmakers. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, said he would be "very surprised if some people don't lose their lives" as a result of the leaks.

In the Spotlight

On Wednesday of last week, Hillary Clinton was in the Kazakh capital Astana for a long-planned summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was her first major appearance on the international stage in the wake of the leaks, and she knew that it could be an embarrassing one.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 70-year-old ruler of Kazakhstan, was standing on a large stage in the Palace of Independence, waiting for 38 heads of state, as well as other senior politicians from around the world. He was the host of the event, the first OSCE summit since 1999. The head of each delegation had to walk up a small staircase onto the stage to shake the Kazakh autocrat's hand.

Finally it was Hillary Clinton's turn. Wearing a dark-blue suit, she climbed up the stairs and walked toward Nazarbayev, smiling broadly. As she stood on the stage with Nazarbayev, Clinton knew that the spotlight was on her, as the head of the US State Department, the government agency responsible for writing so many unflattering psychological profiles and political assessments of politicians worldwide.

Some of the people Clinton's ambassadors wrote about were now sitting in the room in front of her. They included Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whom the diplomats characterized as "pale and hesitant" and likened to a comic-book character, and the president of Turkmenistan, who, according to the cables, is "a practiced liar" and "not very bright".

Host Nazarbayev is apparently fond of warm weather, has about 40 horses in his stable and owns a palace in the Arab Emirates. Nazarbayev has already told the Americans that he will get over the revelations.

More Than Just Damaged Egos

But it's more than a question of potentially damaged egos. The published cables offer insights into the thought processes of American leaders and their counterparts abroad. They provide authentic direct quotes from the world's crisis regions. They report on North Korean B25 rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads and with an estimated range of 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles), which Pyongyang allegedly shipped to Iran. They reveal that US diplomats were given secret instructions in the summer of 2009 to spy on foreign officials at the UN. They discuss Arab leaders who favored bombing Iran. They describe a suitcase containing $52 million (€39 million) in cash, with which Afghanistan's former vice-president was caught in Dubai before he was released again. And they mention a Lebanese defense minister who said that he hoped Israel would bomb his own country and annihilate Hezbollah.

The cables, as reports from a world of secretiveness and discretion, contain astonishingly clear and unvarnished statements made in the context of the diplomatic realm of duplicity. They have shocked, alienated and appalled the world.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, seemingly in shock and speaking somewhat prematurely, called the leaks the "September 11th of world diplomacy." French government spokesman François Baroin, calling the leaks a threat that needed to be combated, said: "I always thought that a transparent society was a totalitarian society."

Hillary Clinton is aware of all of these irritations. According to her spokesman, she claimed not to have read a single one of the problematic documents. This is astonishing. In her speech before the OSCE plenary assembly, she didn't say a word about the WikiLeaks disclosures.

'No Better Friend'

Suddenly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the woman American diplomats described as "rarely creative," was sitting next to Clinton. Merkel was also wearing blue that day. The two women seemed to be having an amiable conversation. The chancellor would later say that the WikiLeaks affair played only a "secondary" role at the meeting.

Things did not go quite as smoothly for Clinton with Silvio Berlusconi. Since the leaks occurred, the Italian prime minister -- the last world leader to arrive at the meeting, carrying a folder under his arm and visibly out of breath -- has been under suspicion of securing benefits for himself in connection with energy deals with Russia, which he denies. The cables describe Berlusconi as "feckless, vain and ineffective" and as a party animal who doesn't get enough sleep. But in Astana, Clinton also felt compelled to make amends with the Italian. "We have no better friend, we have no one who supports the American policies as consistently as Prime Minister Berlusconi has," Clinton told reporters.

Apologies, professions of solidarity and efforts to make amends: Is this what American foreign policy will look like for the next few months?

"We cannot, of course, put the toothpaste back in the tube," writes former CIA case officer Robert Baer in an opinion piece for the Financial Times. "The credibility of the State Department as a reliable interlocutor has evaporated, and no doubt for a long time."

In an interview with SPIEGEL , former Saudi Arabian intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal says that American's "credibility and honesty are the victim of these leaks" and assumes that from now on people "will no longer speak to American diplomats frankly."

'Anything Less than Execution Is Too Kind'

Those at the right end of the American political spectrum feel threatened by a foreign power once again. Whoever passed on this information is guilty of treason, says former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. According to Huckabee, "anything less than execution is too kind a penalty."

His rival Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be hunted down like a terrorist. "He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands. … Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?"

One leading politician who hasn't said much is President Barack Obama, whose handling of the WikiLeaks affair thus far only confirms his political adversaries' criticisms. Just like with the controversy over an Islamic center in New York and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama is once again being accused of not taking decisive action, showing weakness and putting America's superpower status at risk. Obama's inaction in the WikiLeaks case was the focus of conservative criticism in the second half of the week.

Commentator Ann Coulter calls Obama a hesitant, powerless leader who is stuck in the White House, incapable of doing anything to defend his country. While Interpol is looking for Assange, she says, the US government isn't doing everything in its power to apprehend him. She characterizes the United States as "a helpless, pitiful giant."

Conspiracy Theories

Turkey has considered taking legal action because of the leaks. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described in the cables as an "ignorant Islamist" with eight Swiss bank accounts, wants to strike back at US diplomats in a big way. "Those who have slandered us will be crushed under these claims, will be finished and will disappear," Erdogan announced in Istanbul, where he is considering filing a lawsuit against the diplomats.

Many Turks suspect that a massive conspiracy by the Jewish lobby is behind the WikiLeaks campaign, a view held even by the deputy chairman of the governing party, the AKP. The goal of the reports, he says, is to weaken the Turkish government.

The cables will probably have their most serious long-term effects in places where the world was already extremely fragile before the leaks: the Middle East, Yemen, the countries bordering Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Critics in Islamabad said last week that the United States, Pakistan's strategic partner in the war on terrorism, mistrusts its Pakistani allies and is "playing a double game." Some of the cables revealed US concerns that Islamabad is not sufficiently protecting its nuclear arsenal. "The documents show what Washington really thinks about us," says one official in a Pakistani ministry.

Humble Pie

Secretary Clinton's diplomats will have to woo their foreign counterparts and openly express their regrets, and they'll even have to eat some humble pie to offset the loss of confidence. The State Department is already thinking about withdrawing some of its ambassadors as a way of making amends. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns says that the WikiLeaks disclosures have done "substantial damage" to diplomacy.

The peculiar thing about this debate is that it also has another, entirely different side, in the form of those who feel that the leaked cables are "embarrassing but not damaging" and "lack relevant new information."

"The WikiLeaks disclosures did not offer any surprises," writes Switzerland's Neue Zürcher Zeitung, while the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit argues there is nothing at risk "that ought to preoccupy humanity, at least not in Europe."

From Banal to Explosive

Everyone, from the outraged to those who downplay the significance of the cables, is talking about the same dispatches, the same data sets that WikiLeaks began releasing on its website on Sunday, Nov. 28. The New York Times, Britain's Guardian newspaper, SPIEGEL, the French daily newspaper Le Monde and Spain's El Pais were given advance access to this treasure trove  and were able to analyze it. Rarely has an exposé angered so many people and provoked such widely diverging reactions. And rarely have leaks been disseminated so widely and so simultaneously.

Some of the 251,287 documents are banal, but some are so explosive that the publications analyzing them agreed not to publish them. There were thousands of instances in which journalists had to exercise discretion in handling the information in the cables responsibly. To protect so-called secondary sources, their names were not mentioned. Certain counterterrorism efforts and military operations were kept secret, out of consideration for the governments involved.

SPIEGEL spent months examining this material, just as it has done with material from any other source in the past and will continue to do in the future. The only difference in the WikiLeaks case was that the five participating publications agreed on the date of release, and agreed not to disclose the names of people whose freedom or lives could be put at risk by such disclosures.

Source of Resentment

Many of the cables are part of ordinary diplomatic reporting, while others clearly document borderline cases. The recruitment of a source within Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP) by employees of the US embassy in Berlin is certainly in the latter category.

Another such case clearly involves the State Department's instructions to its diplomats to spy on UN officials in New York. The directive on which they were based included a wish list of information about senior UN officials drawn up by the CIA. "The contents of that came from outside the Department of State," department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a press briefing last week.

The cables, which instructed diplomats to obtain biometric data on UN envoys, as well as the details of their frequent flier accounts and even credit card numbers, were justifiably a source of resentment and anger at the UN building on New York's East River.

Speaking to a plenary session, UN spokesman Farhan Haq quoted a passage from the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, clearly troubled by the disclosures, conferred with Clinton, but both remained diplomatically tight-lipped on the issue after the meeting.

State of Shock

The documents made their deepest impression in the Middle East, where they add credence to an often voiced but never proven suspicion, namely that the governments of Israel and the major Arab countries, who are traditionally hostile toward one another, are completely in agreement on one issue: their stance toward Iran. Both sides apparently want the Americans to put an end to Tehran's nuclear program and, contrary to their official positions, many Arab leaders are prepared to accept war as a possible consequence. The American diplomats quote the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates as saying that this is merely "a matter of when, not if."

Seeing words like this published for the first time made such an impression on the Arab elites that they fell into a state of shock for three days. By Wednesday, the government-controlled newspapers in the Gulf had not printed a word of the colossal statements their own kings, sheikhs and emirs had made. The Arab press was silent for good reason. Arab leaders have lied to their people for years. The cables clearly demonstrate that these leaders' repeatedly voiced appeals for Muslim unity were nothing but hollow phrases. The documents show, for example, that the Sunni Arab leaders showed their deep aversion to the Shiite mullahs in Tehran by showering them with a wealth of insults.

The only problem is that their people, influenced by decades of propaganda, have since formed a different opinion. According to a recent survey by the US-based Zogby opinion polling firm, only 10 percent of Egyptians, Saudi Arabians and Jordanians feel threatened by Iran, while 77 percent of respondents fear the United States and 88 percent see Israel as a threat. The disclosures of the embassy cables are making Arab governments in the Middle East much more nervous than governments elsewhere in the world, because they show that at least part of their legitimacy is based on lies.

At the end of last week, a group of diplomatic cables from an unknown source suddenly surfaced in the Arab world. The documents had not been released on the WikiLeaks website or by the five media partners. Their source remained unclear by Friday evening, as did the question of how responsibly they are now likely to be treated. However, the cables appear to be authentic.

'Satanic Conspiracy'

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for his part, declared from the very beginning that the cables were forgeries, the result of a "Satanic conspiracy" launched by Washington to harm Arab-Iranian relations. His advisor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, said : "America wants to portray itself as the leader of the world, as master of the destinies of nations."

No one seems to be as comfortable with the disclosures as the Americans' worst enemy and best friend, respectively, Iran and Israel. While Ahmadinejad sharply criticized what he called the Americans' "psychological warfare," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was noticeably relaxed when he spoke with the press in Jerusalem. The fact that the whole world can now read up on how closely Arab intelligence agencies cooperate with Israel, and that the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia called for an attack on Iran -- these are unexpected gifts for Netanyahu.

For the first time in history, Netanyahu told the journalists, there is finally agreement that Iran is a threat. He even said that he sees the leaks as a key to regional peace. "If leaders start saying openly what they have long been saying behind closed doors, we can make a real breakthrough on the road to peace."

A new WikiLeaks fan community emerged in Israel overnight. A columnist for the major Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth wrote: "Had WikiLeaks not existed, Israel would have had to invent it."

Relaxed Reaction

And what are the British saying? They had to learn that it apparently didn't bother Prince Andrew that the biggest British arms maker had corrupt business dealings with Saudi Arabia. They also read that the head of their central bank, the Bank of England, voiced misgivings over Prime Minister David Cameron's ability to survive the current financial crisis. The British are, in fact, taking a relaxed approach. Unlike many Americans, they do not see WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a public enemy. Sherard Cowper-Coles, a British diplomat who was his country's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan until recently, said that the material might be "inconvenient" but it contains "few surprises."

Now everyone can see for themselves what a first-class job US diplomats are doing, writes historian Timothy Garton Ash, arguing that the leaks are, in fact, good news for the Americans. Fareed Zakaria, the chief columnist for Time, agrees. After studying the cables, Zakaria writes, he was relieved to find that they "show an American diplomatic establishment that is pretty good at analysis."

So what exactly is the downside for the United States? Perhaps the biggest problem the cables reveal, writes Zakaria, is that an individual soldier, sitting at his computer on a military base in Iraq, was able to download secret reports on conversations between the French foreign minister and the US defense secretary. For Zakaria, it was Washington's absurd data policy that made the scandal possible in the first place, a problem the Americans have been forced to address.

Not Off-Limits

Would SPIEGEL have published these reports if they had come from a different source? Does it consider them to be politically significant? The answer, in both cases, is yes. A newspaper or magazine must be able to print material that state authorities wrongly exploit or keep under lock and key, SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein once wrote. "A journalist is motivated by the intention to provide the public with the knowledge it needs to form an opinion on existential issues," the now-deceased former publisher of SPIEGEL also wrote.

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dana Priest of the Washington Post, these documents show how nations interact with each other, and provide "an unfiltered view" of what they think of their enemies and allies. Priest argues that the public has a right to know what its government is up to.

But don't countries also have the right to privacy, as the Swiss weekly magazine Weltwoche asks?

It has always been SPIEGEL's view that not everything governments consider to be secret should be off-limits to journalists. SPIEGEL's 1982 disclosure of the Flick affair, which involved questionable political contributions by the German Flick company, was based on confidential documents from the public prosecutor's office. The magazine's reporting on the Neue Heimat embezzlement affair was based on internal trade union documents, while SPIEGEL obtained information on the Kunduz bombing disaster from confidential German military documents and a classified NATO report.

"A journalist who sees the WikiLeaks data primarily as an issue of national or, even worse, Western security, has successfully shot himself in the foot -- and dealt a blow to press freedom in the process," writes Jakob Augstein, son of the SPIEGEL founder and publisher of the weekly newspaper Freitag.

But even those newspapers that were critical of the publication of the cables, such as the German tabloid Bild, which characterized the "online anarchists" as criminal, or the daily Die Welt, which wrote of an irresponsible and immensely dangerous "summary breach of secrecy," did not refrain from reporting on the disclosures at length last week.

Calls for Revenge

In this respect, Germany was no different from the United States, where political forces on the right are now calling for revenge. Bloggers have used their sites to unveil their own plans for Bradley Manning, the gay, 23-year-old private, a former military IT expert in Iraq, who allegedly downloaded the diplomatic cables and leaked them to WikiLeaks. They want to see him stuffed into one of those orange jumpsuits worn by the prisoners at Guantanamo, picked up by a helicopter and dragged off to a secret camp. For days, there have been calls on the Internet for his execution. The man who said that he copied the cables onto a CD he had disguised as one of Lady Gaga music has not become a hero, nor has WikiLeaks founder Assange.

Last Thursday, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) criticized what it called a "political campaign" against Assange and Manning. According to the IFJ, the "calls by right-wing commentators for Manning to be executed and that Assange be hunted down as a spy … show a mood of intolerance and persecution that is dangerous not just for the two men but for all journalists engaged in investigating public affairs."

The US government is now doing its utmost to prevent the spread of the documents. The Social Security Administration was the first government agency to warn its employees, 62,000 in all, not to disseminate the WikiLeaks documents to others, copy them or even read them. Government workers caught in violation of the order could face criminal consequences.

Manning, who was 22 when he copied the files, has repeatedly been accused of being motivated by a desire for recognition. But Manning himself offered a different explanation before he was taken into custody. He said that he had been told to cover up a lot of things during his time in Iraq, and that this had outraged him. After seeing the now notorious Baghdad helicopter video, he apparently decided to search for more material. When he found the cables, he said, he wanted the world to find out about them.

In Shackles

Manning has been in a military jail at the Marine Corps Base Quantico, about an hour's drive from Washington, for more than four months now. He gets up at 5:30 every morning and goes to bed at 8:30 every night. His attorney can see him, and an aunt visited him two weeks ago for the first time. His immediate family, on the other hand, has not been to Quantico. When Manning has visitors, he is brought to the visitors' area with his hands and feet in shackles. The noise of the chains can be heard from a distance.

He takes antidepressants and sleeping pills, but he is no longer considered a suicide risk. As a precaution, however, there are no sheets in his cell yet. He is allowed to watch television for one hour a week.

It's quite possible, therefore, that Manning has now become aware of the storm he has unleashed out there, beyond the gates of Quantico.

MARCO EVERS, JOHN GOETZ, MARC HUJER, HASNAIN KAZIM, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, CHRISTIAN NEEF, MAXIMILIAN POPP, BRITTA SANDBERG, GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ, STEFAN SIMONS, DANIEL STEINVORTH, BERNHARD ZAND

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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