State Department Secrets Revealed How America Views the World

Exactly 251,287 State Department documents, many of them secret embassy reports from around the world, show how the US seeks to safeguard its influence around the world. Their publication is nothing short of a political meltdown for US foreign policy.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama

Foto: A2800 epa Kevin Dietsch/Pool/ dpa

Editor's note: Earlier this week, we posted a shortened version of SPIEGEL's cover story on the latest WikiLeaks release. We are now posting the article in its entirety here because it provides an excellent overview of what we have run on the site so far this week.

Can the United States of America survive without German help? What is it that is so important about Germany that "the incapacitation or destruction" of such systems and assets would have a "debilitating impact" on US security, the economy, public health, safety or any combination of these? Put another way, what is absolutely sacrosanct, even in times of war?

The answers can be found at the State Department in Washington, which maintains a global list of "critical infrastructure and key resources." The list was compiled by American embassies -- and, of course, it's secret. Among other things, Germany is listed as possessing trans-Atlantic undersea cable landings, companies that make specific high-tech energy-saving products and weapons firms that specialize in manufacturing mortars, for example. There are also biotech companies that produce vaccines and factories that concoct drugs intended to counteract the effects of exposure to radiation.

Although cultural monuments aren't included here or anywhere else on the list, it does feature a number of strategically important locations like the entire Hamburg harbor, which was a prime target for American and British bombing raids in World War II.

Neatly Divided into Friends and Foes

The State Department is both the headquarters and the main recipient of cables from 260 embassies and consulates in 180 countries, a collection point for politically relevant or sensitive information from around the globe. It is here that reports and assessment by some 12,000 American diplomats arrive, where they are stored in a database that manifests America's view of the world, neatly divided into friends and foes. Who can help us? Who will harm us? The database is both the raw material that Washington distils to create its foreign policy, and its world fact book; the "logbook of diplomatic activity," as the US State Department terms this unique collection of reports.

There is little that is trivial about the material. Ambassadors paint the broad outlines of the political developments in their respective host countries, but also portray the human extravagancies of the local leaders. They send cable after cable to the State Department, reporting for example:

  • That King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia can't stand  neighboring Iran, expressing his disdain for the mullah regime with the words "there is no doubt something unstable about them";

  • That the military conflict between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008 showed which member of the Kremlin power duo of President Dimitri Medvedev (" pale and hesitant ") and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (" an alpha dog ") was really in charge;

  • That America's most important ally in the war in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, has a " weak personality " and is driven by "paranoia" and plagued by "conspiratorial thinking";

  • That during a meeting of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, the enraged Revolutionary Guard chief of staff, Mohammed Ali Jafari, allegedly got into a heated argument with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and slapped him  in the face;

  • That Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak considers America's war in Iraq to be the " biggest mistake ever committed " and US President George W. Bush stubborn because the "brutal and bloody" Iraqi people aren't interested in democracy;

  • That Washington was forced to haggle  like a street-vendor to get countries to accept former Guantanamo Bay detainees, having to offer additional development aid and even a state visit by President Barack Obama personally; and

  • That some Chinese leaders have lost patience with their unpredictable North Korean ally, Kim Jong Il, and could imagine the reunification  of the Korean peninsula under South Korean rule.

And so it goes on around the globe, repeated tens of thousands and indeed hundreds of thousands of times, proving that little escapes the trained, skeptical eyes of US diplomats.

The Planet's Last Surviving Superpower

The State Department, dubbed "Foggy Bottom" on account of its original location near the Potomac River, is everything other than vague. It houses the political memory of a major nation that until recently thought it could shape world affairs as the planet's last surviving superpower.

The flood of data flowing into the State Department, which it collectively terms a protocol of "diplomacy in action," can only help shape and execute American foreign policy if the reports remain confidential. What use it is to US foreign policy experts if friends and foes alike know exactly what America thinks of its partners? And it goes without saying that secret information about weapons deliveries, for example, is more effective if US players want to lean on reluctant allies. However US diplomats think it's none of the general public's business why the United States take a particular stance on the world stage, why they seek to nudge friends or foes in one direction or another, what sanctions US diplomats use to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons capability, or how Washington intends to flush al-Qaida out of the Sahara Desert.

Unfortunately the cat's already out of the bag.

This week, the New York Times, the London Guardian newspaper, Le Monde in Paris, El Pais in Madrid and SPIEGEL began shedding light on the treasure trove of secret documents from the State Department. Included are 243,270 diplomatic cables the State Department received from US embassies, and 8,017 directives that the State Department sent to its diplomatic outposts around the world. In the coming days and weeks, the participating media will continue to show in a series of investigative stories how America views the world, how it seeks to steer events around the globe, but also where it has failed.

Together the WikiLeaks documents represent a rich mine of information about, among other things, who is using gray or black markets to supply goods and weapons to troubled areas of the globe such as Syria and Myanmar. The State Department knows the manufacturers involved, and names willing exporters, such as China, Malaysia and Ukraine. But it's also keeping tabs on German firms.

The documents also reveal how effective American drone attacks  are in targeting Taliban leaders on Pakistani soil. Apparently they have been extremely effective. And while politicians regularly bemoan the breach of Pakistani sovereignty, the military has a favorable view of the use of these extremely precise remote-controlled weapons.

Who is funding the enemy in the Afghanistan war? Who is supporting Islamists in Gaza? How does al-Qaida get its money? The State Department has many answers to such questions, though certainly not all. For instance the US embassy in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, writes that in spite of all the willingness by the kingdom's officials to cooperate, "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide."

The craze for collecting infromation of Washington's diplomats is no less fierce or globally ambitious than their esteemed colleagues at the CIA, which thinks nothing of breaking all the rules of diplomatic etiquette. Because "the intelligence community relies on State (Department) reporting officers for much of the biographical information collected worldwide," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even instructed  her embassies to collect personal information about contacts and informants, including their credit card numbers and frequent-flyer accounts. The once noble diplomatic corps no longer shies away from enlisting aid organizations as spies.

Such revelations are therefore no less than a political meltdown for American foreign policy. Never before has the trust of America's partners and informers around the world been as badly shaken. Their personal views and recommendations, their scheming and betrayals of local rivals, are now available for all to see -- alongside what the US really thinks about them.

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.

A Superpower's Weaknesses Exposed

In pursuing its foreign-policy goals in the wake of the collapse of its rival behind the former Iron Curtain, the United States clearly focused more on military might and intelligence-gathering than on diplomacy. Under George W. Bush, the diplomatic corps shrunk to a greater extent than ever before. In fact, there were more musicians in US military bands than diplomats, while the Pentagon's budget was 24 times the combined expenditure on the State Department and development aid.

It was only with the arrival of Barack Obama that Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- who had also held the post under President Bush -- admitted that, "Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that military success alone is insufficient to achieve victory." President Obama oversaw a realignment of American foreign policy. The White House issued a directive that diplomacy should serve broad-based political ends rather than primarily combating terrorism, as it had for much of the previous decade.

Secretary of State Clinton agreed. In a speech she announced her intention of "shifting from mostly direct exercise and application of power to a more sophisticated and difficult mix or indirect power and influence," an indirect foreign policy that required more patience as well as more partners.

The newly-released documents span the entire timeframe between these poles of diplomatic activity.

On the one hand, they show that local leaders the world over are still falling over themselves to please the US. The question of who gets to be photographed when with President Obama has also prompted rivalry among major European nations. For instance, American diplomats in Madrid cabled the following message to Washington: "For domestic political reasons, they intensely want a US-EU summit, and the lack of a Presidential visit would be seen as a major failure of (Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez) Zapatero."

Nonetheless, local US ambassadors can no longer simply issue instructions in their role as representatives of the American president. Even under George W. Bush, US diplomats spent the first few months of 2003 fruitlessly attempting to cajole the 14 other members of the United Nations Security Council into backing a resolution approving military intervention in Iraq. Only three countries did so. After the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the victorious Americans still had a hard time getting their way. US Vice President Joe Biden has repeatedly visited Baghdad to convince his allies in the Iraqi government to set up respectable democratic mechanisms. But as the embassy memos show, neither Obama's deputy, direct pressure nor sweet words have helped thus far.

On the whole, the cables from the Middle East expose the superpower's weaknesses. Washington has always viewed it as vital to its survival to secure its share of energy reserves, but the world power is often quickly reduced to becoming a plaything of diverse interests. And it is drawn into the animosities between Arabs and Israelis, Shiites and Sunnis, between Islamists and secularists.

First and foremost, however, Washington's relations with up-and-coming economic powerhouse China proves that the "American century" is probably drawing to a close. The documents depict how self-confidently the Chinese dance around the Americans. US diplomats speak of "muscle-flexing, triumphalism and assertiveness" in describing China's image toward the outside world.

When US Ambassador Jon Huntsman wrote a letter to Foreign Minister Yang Jeichi expressing his concern about the incarceration of the dissident Liu Xiaobo, the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, a high-ranking US diplomat was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. There he was told the US had no right to meddle in China's internal affairs. And even Hilary Clinton, to whom all embassy reports have been addressed since late January 2009, has admitted that eye-level talks have become more difficult. After all, Beijing has bought a mountain of US government bonds and has long been America's biggest creditor.

"How do you deal toughly with your banker?" a somewhat resigned Mrs. Clinton asked former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd -- at least, according to a report from the US embassy in Canberra.

It's a question that has ushered in a new century.


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