• More than 250,000 dispatches reveal US foreign strategies
• Diplomats ordered to spy on allies as well as enemies
• Hillary Clinton leads frantic 'damage limitation'
The release of more than 250,000 US embassy cables reveals previously
secret information on American intelligence gathering, and political and
military strategy. Photograph: Rex Features
The United States was catapulted into a worldwide diplomatic crisis
today, with the leaking to the Guardian and other international media of
more than 250,000 classified cables from its embassies, many sent as
recently as February this year.
At the start of a series of daily extracts from the US embassy cables -
many of which are designated "secret" – the Guardian can disclose that
Arab leaders are privately urging an air strike on Iran and that US
officials have been instructed to spy on the UN's leadership.
These two revelations alone would be likely to reverberate around the
world. But the secret dispatches which were obtained by WikiLeaks, the
whistlebowers' website, also reveal Washington's evaluation of many
other highly sensitive international issues.
These include a major shift in relations between China and North Korea,
Pakistan's growing instability and details of clandestine US efforts to
combat al-Qaida in Yemen.
Among scores of other disclosures that are likely to cause uproar, the cables detail:
• Grave fears in Washington and London over the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme
• Alleged links between the Russian government and organised crime.
• Devastating criticism of the UK's military operations in Afghanistan.
• Claims of inappropriate behaviour by a member of the British royal family.
The US has particularly intimate dealings with Britain, and some of the
dispatches from the London embassy in Grosvenor Square will make
uncomfortable reading in Whitehall and Westminster. They range from
serious political criticisms of David Cameron to requests for specific
intelligence about individual MPs.
The cache of cables contains specific allegations of corruption and
against foreign leaders, as well as harsh criticism by US embassy staff
of their host governments, from tiny islands in the Caribbean to China
The material includes a reference to Vladimir Putin as an "alpha-dog",
Hamid Karzai as being "driven by paranoia" and Angela Merkel allegedly
"avoids risk and is rarely creative". There is also a comparison between
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler.
The cables name countries involved in financing terror groups, and
describe a near "environmental disaster" last year over a rogue shipment
of enriched uranium. They disclose technical details of secret
US-Russian nuclear missile negotiations in Geneva, and include a profile
of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who they say is accompanied
everywhere by a "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse.
The cables cover secretary of state Hillary Clinton's activities under
the Obama administration, as well as thousands of files from the George
Bush presidency. Clinton personally led frantic damage limitation this
weekend as Washington prepared foreign governments for the revelations.
She contacted leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, France and
US ambassadors in other capitals were instructed to brief their hosts in
advance of the release of unflattering pen-portraits or nakedly frank
accounts of transactions with the US which they had thought would be
kept quiet. Washington now faces a difficult task in convincing contacts
around the world that any future conversations will remain
"We are all bracing for what may be coming and condemn WikiLeaks for the
release of classified material," state department spokesman PJ Crowley
said. "It will place lives and interests at risk. It is irresponsible."
The state department's legal adviser has written to Wikileaks founder
Julian Assange and his London lawyer, warning that the cables were
obtained illegally and that publication would place at risk "the lives
of countless innocent individuals … ongoing military operations … and
cooperation between countries".
The electronic archive of embassy dispatches from around the world was
allegedly downloaded by a US soldier earlier this year and passed to
WikiLeaks. Assange made them available to the Guardian and four other
newspapers: the New York Times, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in
France and El País in Spain. All five plan to publish extracts from the
most significant cables, but have decided neither to "dump" the entire
dataset into the public domain, nor to publish names that would endanger
innocent individuals. WikiLeaks says that, contrary to the state
department's fears, it also initially intends to post only limited cable
extracts, and to redact identities.
The cables published today reveal how the US uses its embassies as part
of a global espionage network, with diplomats tasked to obtain not just
information from the people they meet, but personal details, such as
frequent flyer numbers, credit card details and even DNA material.
Classified "human intelligence directives" issued in the name of Hillary
Clinton or her predecessor, Condoleeza Rice, instruct officials to
gather information on military installations, weapons markings, vehicle
details of political leaders as well as iris scans, fingerprints and
The most controversial target was the leadership of the United Nations.
That directive requested the specification of telecoms and IT systems
used by top UN officials and their staff and details of "private VIP
networks used for official communication, to include upgrades, security
measures, passwords, personal encryption keys".
When the Guardian put this allegation to Crowley, the state department
spokesman said: "Let me assure you: our diplomats are just that,
diplomats. They do not engage in intelligence activities. They represent
our country around the world, maintain open and transparent contact
with other governments as well as public and private figures, and report
home. That's what diplomats have done for hundreds of years."
The dispatches also shed light on older diplomatic issues. One cable,
for example, reveals, that Nelson Mandela was "furious" when a top
adviser stopped him meeting Margaret Thatcher shortly after his release
from prison to explain why the ANC objected to her policy of
"constructive engagement" with the apartheid regime. "We understand
Mandela was keen for a Thatcher meeting but that [appointments secretary
Zwelakhe] Sisulu argued successfully against it," according to the
cable. It continues: "Mandela has on several occasions expressed his
eagerness for an early meeting with Thatcher to express the ANC's
objections to her policy. We were consequently surprised when the
meeting didn't materialise on his mid-April visit to London and
suspected that ANC hardliners had nixed Mandela's plans."
The US embassy cables are marked "Sipdis" – secret internet protocol
distribution. They were compiled as part of a programme under which
selected dispatches, considered moderately secret but suitable for
sharing with other agencies, would be automatically loaded on to secure
embassy websites, and linked with the military's Siprnet internet
They are classified at various levels up to "SECRET NOFORN" [no
foreigners]. More than 11,000 are marked secret, while around 9,000 of
the cables are marked noforn. The embassies which sent most cables were
Ankara, Baghdad, Amman, Kuwait and Tokyo.
More than 3 million US government personnel and soldiers, many extremely
junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material, even
though the cables contain the identities of foreign informants, often
sensitive contacts in dictatorial regimes. Some are marked "protect" or
Last spring, 22-year-old intelligence analyst Bradley Manning was
charged with leaking many of these cables, along with a gun-camera video
of an Apache helicopter crew mistakenly killing two Reuters news agency
employees in Baghdad in 2007, which was subsequently posted by
WikiLeaks. Manning is facing a court martial.
In July and October WikiLeaks also published thousands of leaked
military reports from Afghanistan and Iraq. These were made available
for analysis beforehand to the Guardian, along with Der Spiegel and the
New York Times.
A former hacker, Adrian Lamo, who reported Manning to the US
authorities, said the soldier had told him in chat messages that the
cables revealed "how the first world exploits the third, in detail".
He also said, according to Lamo, that Clinton "and several thousand
diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they
wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign
policy is available in searchable format to the public … everywhere
there's a US post … there's a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed".
Asked why such sensitive material was posted on a network accessible to
thousands of government employees, the state department spokesman told
the Guardian: "The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath revealed gaps in
intra-governmental information sharing. Since the attacks of 9/11, the
US government has taken significant steps to facilitate information
sharing. These efforts were focused on giving diplomatic, military, law
enforcement and intelligence specialists quicker and easier access to
more data to more effectively do their jobs."
He added: "We have been taking aggressive action in recent weeks and
months to enhance the security of our systems and to prevent the leak of