WASHINGTON — The first batch of newly leaked U.S. diplomatic cables Sunday documented that the king of Saudi Arabia, echoed by other Arab leaders, have urged the United States to "cut off the head of the snake" and destroy Iran's nuclear facilities.
They also revealed a U.S. State Department instruction to U.S. diplomats to spy on United Nations officials — and collect their personal data, and they contained unflattering portraits of a number of world leaders.
Further releases in coming days will outline U.S. fears over the security of Pakistan's nuclear program, U.S. and South Korean discussions of Korean reunification and alleged Chinese cyber sabotage, according to the five media organizations given advance access to the materials.
The first tranche of documents, released by WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website, didn't contain any explosive revelations, although a cable outlining U.S. efforts to convince China to stop commercial air shipments of North Korean missile parts to Iran via Beijing appeared to divulge a top-secret U.S. intelligence operation.
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However, the cables' blunt language and their unvarnished statements of U.S. positions on a wide range of issues as well as internal U.S. assessments of world leaders could prove highly embarrassing, hurt ties with allies and other countries and diminish trust in Washington's ability to safeguard secrets.
"These cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement. "When the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only U.S. foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends."
"We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information," he said.
One awkward leak was a January cable describing a meeting between Army Gen. David Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh in which Saleh said he would cover up U.S. air strikes against local al Qaida members by continuing to say "the bombs are ours, not yours."
At that, Saleh's deputy prime minister joked that "he had just 'lied' by telling Parliament" that Yemeni forces had launched the strikes.
Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security and a past foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the release of the cables has the potential to be "a very big deal" not because of any one individual revelation so much as the overall chilling effect on U.S. diplomatic relations.
"I'm sure there are now tens of thousands of people who feel totally burned because they provided either their take or information to U.S. diplomats with the idea this was going to be protected," Fontaine said. "Now it's out there for the whole world to see."
As it did with earlier leaks of thousands of U.S. reports on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, WikiLeaks provided more than 250,000 diplomatic cables in advance to the New York Times, Germany's Der Spiegel newsmagazine and the Guardian of Great Britain. It expanded the group to include Spanish newspaper El Pais and French newspaper Le Monde.
WikiLeaks is reported to have received the documents from a U.S. Army intelligence analyst who was based in Iraq and had access to SIPRNET, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network — a Pentagon-run computer system that also carries State Department cable traffic classified up to secret. The system does not carry material rated top secret, the most highly classified level.
The analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, 22, was arrested earlier this year and charged with the unauthorized use and disclosure of U.S. classified information.
The cables released Sunday drive home the preoccupation by President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, with Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and the depth of international concern.
An April 20, 2008, cable recalled repeated entreaties by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, which are widely believed to be part of a secret nuclear weapons development program, an allegation denied by Tehran.
Abdullah frequently urged the U.S. "to cut off the head of the snake," said the cable, the summary of a meeting the king and other senior Saudi leaders held with then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Petraeus.
At the same meeting, however, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal urged tighter U.S. and international sanctions on Iran, the course Obama adopted.
A November 2009 cable quoted King Hamad ibn Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain, the home of the U.S. 5th Fleet, as arguing "forcefully for taking action to terminate (Iran's) nuclear program by whatever means necessary." That same month, a cable reported a senior State Department official as telling his Israeli counterparts that U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian standoff weren't "open-ended."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quoted in a February cable as telling Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini that, "It will be a different world in five years' time" if Iran acquires a nuclear warhead.
"Without progress in the next few months, we risk nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, war prompted by an Israeli strike (on Iran's nuclear facilities), or both," Gates said.
The cables dealt with other alleged Iranian misconduct. They included a December 2008 warning by then-Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte to Armenia that it risked being hit with U.S. sanctions if it didn't stop selling arms to Tehran that were used by Iranian-backed militias to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
One lengthy cable that could prove deeply embarrassing outlined new instructions to U.S. diplomats "around the world and at U.N. headquarters" on collecting intelligence on senior U.N. officials. The information included credit card numbers and frequent flyer miles, e-mail accounts and work schedules.
The State Department also wanted "detailed technical information, including passwords and personal encryption keys for communications networks used by U.N. officials. It also wanted to know about potential links between U.N. organizations and terrorists and any corruption in the U.N.," said the July 31, 2009, cable.
The Guardian said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the new intelligence-gathering instructions, and that the targets included U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the representatives of the permanent veto-wielding U.N. Security Council members — China, France, Russia, France and Britain.
The New York Times described the instructions as expanding the role of U.S. diplomats in collecting intelligence, a depiction disputed by State Department spokesman Phillip J. Crowley."Our diplomats are just that, diplomats," Crowley said. "They . . . engage openly and transparently with representatives of foreign governments and civil society, Through this process, they collect information that shapes our policies and actions. This is what diplomats, from our country and other countries, have done for hundreds of years."
(Margaret Talev and Steven Thomma in Washington contributed to this article. McClatchy special correspondent Sheera Frenkel contributed from Jerusalem.)
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