WASHINGTON — 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.Vote: Should WikiLeaks be designated a 'terrorist' organization? Open Channel: Watching the WikiLeaks release
"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.Video: Panel to review intelligence sharing
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.