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Entire trove of WikiLeaks cables could go public

WikiLeaks accuses The Guardian newspaper of releasing a password that could unveil all 251,287 diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks last year.
Philippine President Corazon Aquino (L)
Former Philippine President Corazon C. Aquino waves to the cheering crowd from the balcony of the Malacanang Palace in Manila during Independence Day celebrations on June 12, 1986. Corazon C. Aquino, a Philippine icon, was criticized in a cable released by WikiLeaks.Romeo Gacad / AFP/Getty Images file
/ Source: The New York Times

In the Philippines this week, officials are fuming about criticism by a former American ambassador of the late Corazon C. Aquino, a national icon. Australians have learned that just two years ago American authorities were considering declaring that Australia’s air safety system no longer met international standards. People in Botswana could read a critical American account of that country’s anemic efforts against human trafficking.

In other words, WikiLeaks is at it again.

News organizations in dozens of countries are panning for nuggets in the latest and largest dump of diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, which last week suddenly accelerated its posting of the confidential State Department documents. Over a few days, the group made public nearly 134,000 cables — more than six times the total number published by WikiLeaks and many news organizations over the past nine months.

Because the newly disclosed cables reveal the names of more than 100 people in foreign countries whom diplomats had marked for special protection, the cables raised new fears over the safety of diplomats’ sources. Previous cable releases had often removed the names of vulnerable people.

On top of the new WikiLeaks posting, news media reports have suggested that a file containing all 251,287 diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks last year might soon be made public. Late Wednesday, WikiLeaks accused the British newspaper The Guardian of revealing a secret password that could lead to the exposure of the entire cable collection. In a statement, the group said it was that expectation that prompted its release of the cables.

David Leigh, a Guardian editor, said in an e-mail that he had included the password in a book on WikiLeaks last year only after Julian Assange, the group’s founder, assured him it would expire after a few hours. He said Mr. Assange was responsible for any breach.

Interviews this week with diplomats, defense officials and human rights advocates suggested that so far their worst fears about reprisals resulting from the cables’ publication had not been realized.

“We are not aware of anyone who has been arrested or injured because they were named in the cables,” said Dinah PoKempner, the general counsel of Human Rights Watch. “We remain concerned about the potential for reprisal,” especially as a result of the new batch of cables, she added.

At the same time, Ms. PoKempner said, “there have been tremendous positive consequences in terms of people’s access to information about their own countries.” She noted that the WikiLeaks revelations about official corruption in Tunisia helped fuel the first democratic revolution of the Arab Spring.

'Criminal operation'
WikiLeaks has been a magnet for controversy since it began large-scale disclosures of American documents last year, and the new release stirred the same strong emotions. A cyberattack took down the main WikiLeaks Web site for a time on Tuesday, and speculation about possible perpetrators ranged from a number of governments to former WikiLeaks associates now estranged from Mr. Assange.

Representative Candice S. Miller, Republican of Michigan, issued a statement saying, “The latest release of stolen American secrets by the organization WikiLeaks once again proves that they are a terrorist operation.” She urged the Obama administration, which is conducting a criminal investigation of the group, “to take decisive action to shut this criminal operation down.”

And the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, while declining to confirm the cables’ authenticity, denounced the disclosure of classified information. (Most of the cables are unclassified, but some are classified up to the level of “secret.”)

“We continue to carefully monitor what becomes public and to take steps to mitigate the damage to national security and to assist those who may be harmed by these illegal disclosures to the extent that we can,” Ms. Nuland said.

After the initial publication of cables in November, the State Department began to warn people named in them, including dissidents, academics and journalists. In a small number of cases, people seen as especially vulnerable were given help to leave their countries. For instance, an Iranian quoted in the cables as sharply criticizing Iran’s government received help that enabled him and his family to move to the United States.

A Defense Department spokesman said American military officials were not aware that any Afghan citizen had been harmed as a result of being named in Afghan war documents published by WikiLeaks last year, despite Taliban threats to punish people who provided information to American troops. But the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory, said it was hard to be certain that revenge attacks had not taken place.

A former State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, said department officials knew of a few people named in the cables who were subsequently imprisoned in their own countries. But Mr. Crowley said the impact of the WikiLeaks disclosures were uncertain because those involved, whom he would not identify by name or country, were already at risk of persecution for their own political dissent.

“Was the dissident put in prison because he talked to our guy and turned up in a leaked cable?” he said. “Or was he put in prison because of what he was doing?”

Several American diplomats spoke to The New York Times about the impact of the cables, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. None knew of any case in which someone named in a cable had been imprisoned or physically harmed as a result, though a German party official and a Turkish journalist, among others, lost their jobs for speaking too candidly.

But the diplomats said that reporting from American Embassies around the world had suffered. Foreigners are now more nervous about confiding views that could get them in trouble if leaked. “There was gallows humor at first,” one veteran diplomat said. “People would say, ‘Please quote me correctly so that when it’s leaked and published, I’ll sound good.’ ”

And diplomats themselves are more reluctant to name their sources in cables, and these omissions at least marginally reduce the precision and weight of the reports.

Steven Lee Myers and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

This story, "WikiLeaks Prompts New Diplomatic Uproar," originally appeared in The New York Times.