Video: Clinton: U.S. 'deeply regrets' Wikileaks disclosures

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 11/29/2010 1:41:53 PM ET 2010-11-29T18:41:53

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned on Monday the leak of more than 250,000  classified State Department documents, saying the U.S. was taking aggressive steps to hold responsible those who "stole" the information.

In her first public comments since the weekend release of the classified State Department cables, Clinton said online whistleblower Wikileaks acted illegally in posting the material. She said the Obama administration was "aggressively pursuing" those responsible for the leak.

Clinton's comments come as the Obama administration moved into damage control mode, trying to contain fallout from unflattering assessments of world leaders and revelations about backstage U.S. diplomacy.

She said the document leaks "tear at the fabric" of responsible government and that the U.S. "deeply regrets" the disclosures. While maintaining that the leaks erode trust between nations,  Clinton also said she was "confident" that U.S. partnerships would withstand the challenges posed by the latest revelations.

The publication of the secret cables on Sunday amplified widespread global alarm about Iran's nuclear ambitions and unveiled occasional U.S. pressure tactics aimed at hot spots in Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea. The leaks also disclosed bluntly candid impressions from both diplomats and other world leaders about America's allies and foes .

According to the vast cache of diplomatic cables, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program and China directed cyber attacks on the United States.

Bristling over the unauthorized release, President Barack Obama on Monday ordered a government-wide review of how agencies safeguard sensitive information.

The Office of Management and Budget told agencies to establish security assessment teams to ensure that employees do not have broader access to classified information than what is needed to do their jobs.

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'Cut off the head of the snake'
Among the revelations in Britain's Guardian newspaper — which received an advance look at the documents along with the New York Times, France's Le Monde, Germany's Der Spiegel and Spain's El Pais — Saudi King Abdullah is reported to have "frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons program."

"Cut off the head of the snake," the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, quotes the king as saying during a meeting with U.S. Gen. David Petraeus in April 2008.

The cables unearthed new revelations about long-simmering nuclear trouble spots, detailing U.S., Israeli and Arab world fears of Iran's growing nuclear program, American concerns about Pakistan's atomic arsenal and U.S. discussions about a united Korean peninsula as a long-term solution to North Korean aggression.

Iran's president said Monday that the leaked memos recounting Arab calls for the U.S. to launch a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities were intended to stir "mischief."

"We don't give any value to these documents," Ahmadinejad told a news conference. "It's without legal value. Iran and regional states are friends. Such acts of mischief have no impact on relations between nations."

Ahmadinejad alleged the leaks were an "organized" effort by the U.S. to stir trouble between Iran and Arab neighbors.

The Guardian said officials in Jordan and Bahrain have also openly called for Iran's nuclear program to be stopped by any means and that leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referred to Iran "as 'evil,' an 'existential threat' and a power that 'is going to take us to war.'"

Video: Clinton: 'U.S. strongly condemns' leaks (on this page)

Those documents may prove the trickiest because even though the concerns of the Gulf Arab states are known, their leaders rarely offer such stark appraisals in public.

Disclosures about U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program are a surprise public relations windfall for Israel, a former Israeli national security adviser said on Monday.

The secret cables showed Israel trying to prod a sometimes skeptical Washington into tougher action — such as sanctions, subversion, and even a military strike by 2011 — against Tehran.

"If there is something on the Iranian issue that, in my opinion, happens to help Israel, it is that these leaks show that Arab countries like Saudi Arabia are far more interested in Iran than they are in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example," Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general who served as national security adviser to former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, told Israel Radio.

None of the disclosures appeared particularly explosive, but their publication could become problems for the officials concerned and for any secret initiatives they had preferred to keep quiet. The massive release of material intended for diplomatic eyes only is sure to ruffle feathers in foreign capitals, a certainty that already prompted U.S. diplomats to scramble in recent days to shore up relations with key allies in advance of the leaks.

Video: King: WikiLeaks is ‘terrorist organization’ (on this page)

At Clinton's first stop in Astana, Kazakhstan, she will be attending a summit of officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a diplomatic grouping that includes many officials from countries cited in the leaked cables.

White House playing defense
The White House immediately condemned the release of the WikiLeaks documents, saying "such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government."

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, called the release very damaging.

"The catastrophic issue here is just a breakdown in trust," he said Monday, adding that many other countries — allies and foes alike — are likely to ask, " 'Can the United States be trusted? Can the United States keep a secret?' "

U.S. officials may also have to mend fences after revelations that they gathered personal information on other diplomats. The leaks cited American memos encouraging U.S. diplomats at the United Nations to collect detailed data about the U.N. secretary-general, his team and foreign diplomats — going beyond what is considered the normal run of information-gathering expected in diplomatic circles.

Le Monde said a memo asked U.S. diplomats to collect basic contact information about U.N. officials that included Internet passwords, credit card numbers and frequent flyer numbers. They were also asked to obtain fingerprints, ID photos, DNA and iris scans of people of interest to the United States, Le Monde said.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley played down the diplomatic spying allegations. "Our diplomats are just that, diplomats," he said. "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."

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The White House noted that "by its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions."

"Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and 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 around the world," the White House said.

Comments such a description of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's head of state, as playing "Robin to (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin's Batman," are sure to embarrass the Obama administration and to complicate its diplomacy.

The White House said the release of the documents could endanger the lives of people who live under "oppressive regimes" and "deeply impact" the foreign policy interests of the United States, its allies and partners around the world.

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"To be clear — such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

"By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals," he said.

Security analysts tended to agree that the release of the documents was a severe blow to U.S. diplomacy, undermining the confidentiality that is vital for foreign leaders and activists to talk candidly to U.S. officials.

"This is pretty devastating," Roger Cressey, a partner at Goodharbor Consulting and a former U.S. cyber security and counter-terrorism official, said.

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The New York Times said "the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy in a way that other accounts cannot match."

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claimed the administration was trying to cover up alleged evidence of serious "human rights abuse and other criminal behavior" by the U.S. government. WikiLeaks posted the documents just hours after it claimed its website had been hit by a cyberattack that made the site inaccessible for much of the day.

The Times highlighted documents that indicated the U.S. and South Korea were "gaming out an eventual collapse of North Korea" and discussing the prospects for a unified country if the isolated, communist North's economic troubles and political transition lead it to implode.

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The Times also cited diplomatic cables describing unsuccessful U.S. efforts to prod Pakistani officials to remove highly enriched uranium from a reactor out of fear that the material could be used to make an illicit atomic device. And the newspaper cited cables that showed Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, telling Gen. David Petraeus that his country would pretend that American missile strikes against a local al-Qaida group had come from Yemen's forces.

The paper also cited documents showing the U.S. used hardline tactics to win approval from countries to accept freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay. It said Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if its president wanted to meet with President Barack Obama and said the Pacific island of Kiribati was offered millions of dollars to take in a group of detainees.

'Forget about democracy in Iraq'
The leaked documents, the majority of which are from 2007 or later, also disclose U.S. allegations that China's Politburo directed an intrusion into Google's computer systems, part of a broader coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by Chinese government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws, the Times reported.

According to the documents, leading oil exporter Saudi Arabia offered to promote energy ties with China if Beijing backed sanctions against Iran, the Times said.

The kingdom is the top crude oil supplier for China, the world's second-largest oil consumer.

"(Saudi) Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Prince Torki ... explained that Saudi Arabia understood China was concerned about having access to energy supplies, which could be cut off by Iran, and wanted to attract more trade and investment," a diplomatic dispatch said, the newspaper reported on its website.

"Saudi Arabia was willing to provide assurances on those scores to China, but only in exchange for tangible Chinese actions to restrain Iran's drive for nuclear weapons."

Le Monde focused on an exchange between President Nicolas Sarkozy's top foreign advisor, Jean David Levitte, with American undersecretary Phillip Gordon. Levitte describes Venezuela's Hugo Chavez as "crazy" and says he is "turning one of the richest Latin American countries into another Zimbabwe."

Der Spiegel reported that the cables portrayed German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in unflattering terms. It said American diplomats saw Merkel as risk-averse and Westerwelle as largely powerless.

The German magazine also said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek claimed the Iraq war was the "biggest mistake ever committed" and advised the U.S. to "forget about democracy in Iraq." He said the best hope for a peaceful transition once American forces leave is for there to be a military coup.

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Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, meanwhile, was described as erratic and in the near constant company of a Ukrainian nurse who was described in one cable as "a voluptuous blonde," according to the Times.

WikiLeaks' action was widely condemned.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Sunday called the release the "Sept. 11 of world diplomacy," in that everything that had once been accepted as normal has now changed.

Pakistan's foreign ministry said it was an "irresponsible disclosure of sensitive official documents" while Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, called the document release "unhelpful and untimely."

John Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, told German broadcaster ZDF that the disclosures could have a "severe" impact.

"If you now speak with an American diplomat, you have to be worried that it will appear in the newspaper the next day," he added.

Video: New WikiLeaks release ‘devastating,’ says Engel (on this page)

The French government issued a statement saying it was "very much in solidarity with the American administration." 

In Australia, Assange's home country, Attorney General Robert McClelland said law enforcement officials were investigating whether WikiLeaks broke any laws.

The State Department's top lawyer warned Assange late Saturday that lives and military operations would be put at risk if the cables were released. Legal adviser Harold Koh said WikiLeaks would be breaking the law if it went ahead. He also rejected a request from Assange to cooperate in removing sensitive details from the documents.

NBC News' Nancy Ing and Andy Eckardt, The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Interactive: WikiLeaks timeline

Explainer: World leaders seen through U.S. eyes

  • Image: Obama and Afghan President Karzai
    Jim Young  /  Reuters
    Afghan President Hamid Karzai, seen here with President Barack Obama at the White House on May 12, was among the world leaders whose name came up in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

    Called the "Sept. 11 of world diplomacy" by Italy's foreign minister, the leak of 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables has revealed how some U.S. officials view certain world leaders. Below are some of those comments, along with initial reaction from abroad.

    Sources: Associated Press. Reuters and msnbc.com research

  • Dmitry Medvedev

    Image: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
    Sergei Chirikov  /  AFP - Getty Images

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was described as playing “Robin to (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin’s Batman.”

    A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Paris said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates observed on Feb. 8, 2010, that "Russian democracy has disappeared and the government is an oligarchy run by the security services."

    Gates told his French counterpart that "President Medvedev has a more pragmatic vision for Russia than PM Putin, but there has been little real change," according to the document.

    According to a cable from Feb. 25, 2010, one of Washington's top diplomats, Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns, was told by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev that Medvedev is surrounded by people he does not control.

    "Many high-ranking officials don't recognize (Medvedev) as a leader," Aliyev was quoted as saying in a cable. Aliyev said he had seen Medvedev taking decisions that needed further approval and that some were stymied by others, presumably in the prime ministerial office.

    Image: Putin
    Reuters


    "He said that there are signs of a strong confrontation between the teams of the two men, although not yet between Putin and Medvedev personally," the cable added.

    "We have a saying in Azeri, 'Two heads cannot be boiled in one pot'" (street slang suggesting that two leaders are spoiling for a fight)," Aliyev was quoted as saying.

    Another cable said Medvedev’s wife Svetlana “remains the subject of avid gossip,” suggesting the first lady had compiled a list of officials who should be made to “suffer” due to their alleged disloyalty to her husband.

    REACTION:
    Medvedev's spokeswoman said "the Kremlin has found nothing interesting or worth comment" in the cables. Referring to the Batman and Robin description, she said that "fictional Hollywood heroes hardly deserve official comment."

    Putin's spokesman declined to comment, but a diplomatic source said that Russia "regrets" the release, adding: "Digging into diplomatic underwear is not a nice business."

  • Moammar Gadhafi

    Image:  Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi
    Reuters

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was characterized as erratic and was said to rely heavily on his staff of four Ukrainian nurses, including a woman named Galyna Kolotnytska, who was described as being "a voluptuous blonde".

    Another cable told how Gadhafi "appears to have an intense dislike or fear of staying on upper floors, reportedly prefers not to fly over water, and seems to enjoy horse racing and flamenco dancing."

    The cable also read: "Some embassy contacts have claimed that Gadhafi and the 38-year-old Kolotnytska have a romantic relationship. While he did not comment on such rumors, a Ukrainian political officer recently confirmed that the Ukrainian nurses 'travel everywhere with the Leader.'"

  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

    Image: Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
    Reuters

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was referred to as "Hitler" in one U.S. diplomatic cable. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt referred to Iran "as 'evil', an 'existential threat' and a power that 'is going to take us to war.'"

    REACTION:
    Ahmadinejad said the leaked memos recounting Arab calls for the U.S. to launch a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities were intended to stir "mischief."

    "We don't give any value to these documents," Ahmadinejad told a news conference. "It's without legal value. Iran and regional states are friends. Such acts of mischief have no impact on relations between nations."

    He alleged the leaks were an "organized" effort by the U.S. to stir trouble between Iran and Arab neighbors.

  • Nicolas Sarkozy

    Image: Sarkozy
    Reuters

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    French President Nicolas Sarkozy was described as an "emperor with no clothes."

    REACTION:
    The French government issued a statement saying it was “very much in solidarity with the American administration.” Francois Baroin, spokesman for the French government, described WikiLeaks as a "threat against the authority of a democratic society."

  • Hamid Karzai

    Image: Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai
    Reuters

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    Afghan President Hamid Karzai was said to be "an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to report even the most bizarre stories or plots against him."

    Other cables described U.S. officials' meetings with Karzai's half-brother, who heads a provincial council in southern Afghanistan. Ahmad Wali Karzai was depicted as an operator who doubts the value of elections and "is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker." The cable was dated October 2009 and signed off by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

    The secret messages from Kabul to Washington also allege that a former vice-president fled the country with over $50 million in cash, cables and media reports about the cache of documents say.

    REACTION:
    "It won't have a noticeable effect on our broader strategic relationship with the U.S.," Karzai spokesman Waheed Omer told a news conference in Kabul, referring to the WikiLeaks release. "There is not much in the documents to surprise us and we don't see anything substantive that will strain our relationship, but there is more still to come."

  • Kim Jong Il

    Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-il
    Reuters

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    North Korea's leader was described as a "flabby old chap" suffering trauma from a stroke.

  • Silvio Berlusconi

    Image: Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
    Reuters

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    One cable from Rome to Washington described Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi as "physically and politically weak" and asserted that his "frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest."

    Berlusconi was also seen as "vain and ineffective as a modern European leader."

    Numerous cables also raised questions about Berlusconi’s relationship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with one saying Berlusconi “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin” in Europe.

    REACTION:
    Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called the leaks the "Sept. 11 of world diplomacy," in that everything that had once been accepted as normal has now changed.

    Berlusconi insisted he only throws elegant, dignified soirees at his villas. "I unfortunately have never in my life been to a wild party," he said laughing. "Maybe they're interesting. I've never been."

    Berlusconi said he didn't care to read what such diplomats had to report, saying "I don't look at what third-rate or fourth-rate officials say."

    Berlusconi has been accused of entertaining escorts and underage girls at his villas — allegations that have fueled a political crisis that has brought the government to a no-confidence vote in two weeks.

    He said once a month he hosts dinner parties at his homes because so many people want to see him. "At these dinners, everything that occurs is proper, elegant and dignified." Otherwise, guests wouldn't be allowed to take pictures, he added.

    Several beautiful young women have come forward over the past year detailing the dinner parties they attended at Berlusconi's villas in Rome, Milan and Sardinia and the gifts the premier allegedly gave them.

    The most recent, Nadia Macri, a 28-year-old self-described escort, has said Berlusconi paid her $13,000 — delivered in an envelope — for sexual favors after she was introduced to the premier by a television executive.

  • Angela Merkel

    Image: Merkel
    Reuters

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    A U.S. diplomat described German Chancellor Angela Merkel as someone who “avoids risk and is seldom creative.”

    REACTION:
    John Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, told German broadcaster ZDF that the disclosures could have a "severe" impact. "If you now speak with an American diplomat, you have to be worried that it will appear in the newspaper the next day," he added.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan

    Image: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
    Wael Hamzeh  /  EPA

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was described as governing with incompetent advisors who have "little understanding of politics beyond Ankara." They were also described as an "iron ring of sycophantic (but contemptuous) advisors."

    Diplomats at the embassy in Ankara also characterized Turkey as heading toward an Islamist future and not one that would become a member in the European Union.

  • Prince Andrew

    Image:  Prince Andrew, Duke of York
    Chris Jackson  /  Getty Images

    WHAT WAS SAID:
    Tatiana Gfoeller, the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, reported that Prince Andrew spoke "cockily" at a 2008 brunch in that nation's capital with business people, leading a discussion that "verged on the rude".

    The prince, who is a special British trade representative, also attacked Britain's corruption investigators for what he called "idiocy".

    The prince, she added, "was referencing an investigation, subsequently closed, into alleged kickbacks a senior Saudi royal had received in exchange for the multi-year, lucrative BAE Systems contract to provide equipment and training to Saudi security forces."

    He went on to denounce Guardian reporters investigating bribery as "those [expletive] journalists … who poke their noses everywhere".

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