NEW YORK -- A large batch of secret American diplomatic cables over the past three years offers an unusual look at back-channel discussions by embassies around the world, unflattering views of world leaders and stark evaluations of nuclear and terrorist threats, The New York Times reported Sunday.
The disclosures in the Times and four other major world news organizations could fuel a worldwide diplomacy crisis with the United States at its center. "It is nothing short of a political meltdown for U.S. foreign policy," said Der Spiegel, the German publication that, like The Times, obtained the secret cables.
The White House condemned the disclosure of classified documents and released a statement Sunday saying, in part: "We anticipate release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail diplomatic discussions with foreign governments. By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it shape final policy decisions." The statement acknowledged that the cables could "compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders,'' and warned that the disclosures put diplomats and intelligence and other officials at risk.
The cables were initially obtained by WikiLeaks, a website dedicated to obtaining and disseminating government secrets. Late Sunday, WikiLeaks issued a statement saying the leaked cables are the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain. The website said that the cables, which date from 1966 until the end of February this year, will be released in stages over the next few months. WikiLeaks claimed that the documents show the extent of United States spying on its allies and the United Nations; overlooking or accepting corruption and human rights abuse in friendly states; doing backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; and lobbying for American corporations.
"Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington – the country's first president – could not tell a lie," WikiLeaks said. "If the administrations of his successors lived up to the same principle, today's document flood would be a mere embarrassment. Instead, the U.S. government has been warning governments -- even the most corrupt -- around the world about the coming leaks and is bracing itself for the exposures."
The cache of a quarter-million U.S. diplomatic cables were obtained in turn by the Times, Der Spiegel in Germany, The Guardian in Britain, Le Monde in France and El País in Spain. The cables constitute the third bundle of classified material involving the United States released by WikiLeaks to selected news media in the past six months.
The cables, most of them from the past three years, reportedly reveal the Obama administration's communications and discussions over foreign crises. Among startling revelations, The Guardian disclosed that Arab leaders privately urged an air strike on Iran and that American officials have been ordered to spy on the United Nations leadership.
Such revelations have thrown Washington into a worldwide diplomatic crisis. The expected disclosure of the cables had reportedly alarmed the diplomatic establishment in Washington and other world capitals in the past days.
Anticipating an uproar, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and American ambassadors around the world have been contacting foreign officials in recent days to alert them to the expected disclosures, The Times said Sunday.
The cables are part of the daily traffic between the State Department and some 270 embassies and consulates and, according to the Times, amount to a secret account of Washington's relations with the world in an era of global terrorism.
Among disclosures that could potentially cause a problem for Washington, according to The Guardian, are fears in Washington and London over Pakistan's nuclear program; suspected links between the Russian government and organized crime; criticism of British military operations in Afghanistan; and claims of inappropriate behavior by a British royal family member.
The Times cited "gaming out an eventual collapse of North Korea: American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, should the North's economic troubles and political transition lead the state to implode. The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China, according to the American ambassador to Seoul. She told Washington in February that South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would 'help salve' China's 'concerns about living with a reunified Korea' that is in a 'benign alliance' with the United States.''
The Times also cited "suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government: When Afghanistan's vice president visited the United Arab Emirates last year, local authorities working with the Drug Enforcement Administration discovered that he was carrying $52 million in cash. With wry understatement, a cable from the American Embassy in Kabul called the money 'a significant amount' that the official, Ahmed Zia Massoud, 'was ultimately allowed to keep without revealing the money's origin or destination.' (Mr. Massoud denies taking any money out of Afghanistan.)"
The Times said that more than 251,287 cables, first obtained by WikiLeaks, were obtained by the newspaper from an intermediary to whom the newspaper promised anonymity. Many of the documents, the Times said, were unclassified and none were marked "top secret." But some 11,000 are classified "secret."
The Times concluded that the cables demonstrated that "the dark shadow of terrorism still dominates the United States' relations with the world." The Times said it planned to publish details of the revelations in the coming days.
In a critical article Sunday, Der Spiegel concluded: "Never before in history has a superpower lost control of such vast amounts of such sensitive information -- data that can help paint a picture of the foundation upon which U.S. foreign policy is built. Never before has the trust America's partners have in the country been as badly shaken. Now, their own personal views and policy recommendations have been made public -- as have America's true view of them."
As for WikiLeaks, the U.S. Justice Department and other agencies have been investigating the website for potential violation of national security laws. In the meantime, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is under investigation in Sweden on allegations that he sexually abused two women while visiting that country last summer. Assange, an Australian master hacker, is believed to be living in London.