"The 9/11 of world diplomacy." That's how Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini described the leaking of over 250,000 confidential US State Department documents by the whistleblowing organization WikiLeaks.
While it remains to be seen what the lasting impact of the explosive leaks will be, it is already clear that the revelations are a huge embarrassment for Washington and a massive setback for US diplomacy. American representatives abroad may find it difficult in the future to find informants who are as willing to to talk openly as they might have been in the past, now that reams of supposedly confidential conversations have been made public.
Many of the politicians who have been most embarrassed by the unflattering portraits of them in the US embassy cables have been quick to play down their significance. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi reportedly had a "good laugh" when he read the revelations, despite being described as "feckless, vain, and ineffective." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is portrayed as "arrogant" and lacking in foreign policy expertise, told reporters Monday that he had already had to read plenty of "other things" that the media had written about him.
Some of the countries for whom the leaks pose a greater risk also tried to play down their significance. A spokesman for Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement broadcast on Saudi media Tuesday that the cables "do not concern us," adding "we cannot comment on them." The leaked cables reveal that Saudi Arabia had urged the US to "cut off the head of the snake" by attacking Iran, a sentiment apparently shared by other countries in the region.
Not all the countries involved were so nonchalant, however. Both Iraq and Pakistan condemned the disclosures on Monday. Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that "we condemn the irresponsible disclosure of sensitive official documents."
The US was predictably harsh in its reaction. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday that the cables were "an attack on the international community" and would "endanger innocent people," while White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that US President Barack Obama "is, and it is an understatement, not pleased with this information becoming public." US Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York and the incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, went so far as to request the Obama administration to determine whether WikiLeaks could be designated a foreign terrorist organization.
The leaks have also reignited a debate about press freedom and how far WikiLeaks should go in choosing what to publish. The issue dominated the editorial pages of Germany's newspapers on Tuesday, with commentators divided over the value and morality of the cables' publication. Some argue that the public has little to gain from reading insider gossip about world leaders, and say that the leaks could even cause an international crisis. Others are more sanguine, and say that WikiLeaks is just doing what any responsible journalist would do.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The stolen data that WikiLeaks is distributing destroys the thing that allows the usual communication among states to take place, namely confidentiality. Without confidentiality, there is no information, no give and take and no access. Without information, however, there is no knowledge, no analysis and no real decisions."
"The damage to the US as a result of the documents' publication is immense. There is no location in the world that is unaffected by the revelations, and no embassy that was not affronted. The diplomatic facade has crumbled, revealing just how calculating the business of international politics really is."
"It would have been better if the flood of data had never been released. Most of the reports fall into the category of well-informed gossip. ... There is, however, plenty of sensitive information, about Iran, Central Asia, the Arab world, China and North Korea. What is at stake here is war and peace, life and death."
"Following the publication, America's reserve of trust is empty. ... The US has already been struggling for decades to maintain its credibility on the global stage. WikiLeaks has now acted like a weapon of mass destruction on the last traces of trust."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"What's all the fuss about? The information that WikiLeaks has obtained from the American archives, at least as far as it relates to German politics, is common knowledge in Berlin. The descriptions of German politicians in the alleged embassy cables may speak for their authenticity, but they are hardly original. Merkel is risk averse, Westerwelle is not a foreign policy expert? Such conclusions and much more have been heard from the mouths of many high-ranking people."
"After the repeated publication of internal documents, Washington now looks like one giant leak. Who would now trust the Americans to keep confidential conversations confidential? Mistrust will spread, and not only among minor informants. Leaders of the US's allies have been embarrassed in public, with unpredictable consequences for the relationship between their countries and the states and politicians that they talked about. In the world's crisis zones, such revelations could have a far more destructive effect than they will within Merkel's coalition government."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"WikiLeaks has brought the dark side of the Internet into focus. After all, freedom is unthinkable without responsibility. And there is already more than enough irresponsible freedom in the Internet already -- from child pornography to bomb-making instructions from al-Qaida . WikiLeaks has now destroyed the freedom of the confidential diplomatic conversation."
"What applies to private individuals is also true for relations between states. Openness in mutual dealings is only possible when one can be confident that what is said today will not be revealed to the whole world tomorrow. WikiLeaks styles itself as a defender of freedom. But if everyone understood freedom the way they do, it would lead to pure anarchy that would make freedom impossible instead of safeguarding it."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Everyone is talking about unprecedented irresponsibility and even of a turning point in the history of diplomacy. It is true that the US State Department reports being published with the help of WikiLeaks could lead to diplomatic turmoil. At the moment, however, that is nothing more than just misgivings."
"It is wrong to fall for the rearguard action of the individuals involved and to demonize WikiLeaks as the source of the problem. After all, the men and women in Julian Assange's team are simply following the rules of good journalism. WikiLeaks has leaked information without requesting permission from the people who could be affected. And that is actually quite normal. Journalists are not diplomats for whom the possible diplomatic repercussions need to carry more weight than the freedom of the press."
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"WikiLeaks has deliberately chosen media partners such as the New York Times or DER SPIEGEL in Germany that will lend its newest sensation an air of seriousness. Without these well-known media brands as a distribution channel, WikiLeaks would probably be no more than just one of millions of information channels in the hopelessly overcrowded Internet."
"When one examines WikiLeaks from a purely commercial point of view, the revelations have an inconspicuous but clear winner. While the world is busy discussing the terrifying power of the Internet, many well-established print publications are profiting from the publications, particularly WikiLeaks' partners. The filtering and analysis of the huge amounts of data by serious journalists serves to underscore the importance of traditional publishing houses."
The mass-circulation daily Bild writes:
"A man is playing God -- and his Internet platform WikiLeaks is the Last Judgement. It seems that no power on earth can control what the self-styled whistleblowers decide to send round the globe on servers. No population has ever elected them."
"And the disturbing thing is: An entity like WikiLeaks can only exist in the free world. Despots and dictators would not allow it. But at the same time, the organization is defying the rules that allow it to exist. That is anarchy."
"What would WikiLeaks say if a war breaks out between Saudi Arabia and Iran because of the publication? Dealing with freedom and information implies one thing above all: responsibility. But that's a word the online anarchists appear not to understand. Their actions are simply criminal!"