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


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.

An Interactive Atlas of the Diplomatic Cables

A time lapse of 251,287 documents: The world map shows where the majority of the cables originated from, and where they had the highest level of classification. View the atlas ...

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.

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