WASHINGTON — A cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the past three years, provides an unprecedented look at backroom bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats.
Some of the cables, made available to The New York Times and several other news organizations, were written as recently as late February, revealing the Obama administration’s exchanges over crises and conflicts. The material was originally obtained by WikiLeaks, an organization devoted to revealing secret documents. WikiLeaks intends to make the archive public on its Web site in batches, beginning Sunday.
The anticipated disclosure of the cables is already sending shudders through the diplomatic establishment, and could conceivably strain relations with some countries, influencing international affairs in ways that are impossible to predict.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and American ambassadors around the world have been contacting foreign officials in recent days to alert them to the expected disclosures. On Saturday, the State Department’s legal adviser, Harold Hongju Koh, wrote to a lawyer for WikiLeaks informing the organization that the distribution of the cables was illegal and could endanger lives, disrupt military and counterterrorism operations and undermine international cooperation against nuclear proliferation and other threats.
The cables, a huge sampling of the daily traffic between the State Department and some 270 embassies and consulates, amount to a secret chronicle of the United States’ relations with the world in an age of war and terrorism. Among their revelations, to be detailed in The Times in coming days:
¶ A dangerous standoff with Pakistan over nuclear fuel: Since 2007, the United States has mounted a highly secret effort, so far unsuccessful, to remove from a Pakistani research reactor highly enriched uranium that American officials fear could be diverted for use in an illicit nuclear device. In May 2009, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reported that Pakistan was refusing to schedule a visit by American technical experts because, as a Pakistani official said, “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,’ he argued.”
¶ Gaming out an eventual collapse of North Korea: American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, should the North’s economic troubles and political transition lead the state to implode. The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China, according to the American ambassador to Seoul. She told Washington in February that South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would “help salve” China’s “concerns about living with a reunified Korea” that is in a “benign alliance” with the United States.
¶ Bargaining to empty the Guantánamo Bay prison: When American diplomats pressed other countries to resettle detainees, they became reluctant players in a State Department version of “Let’s Make a Deal.” Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if it wanted to meet with President Obama, while the island nation of Kiribati was offered incentives worth millions of dollars to take in a group of detainees, cables from diplomats recounted. The Americans, meanwhile, suggested that accepting more prisoners would be “a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe.”
¶ Suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government: When Afghanistan’s vice president visited the United Arab Emirates last year, local authorities working with the Drug Enforcement Administration discovered that he was carrying $52 million in cash. With wry understatement, a cable from the American Embassy in Kabul called the money “a significant amount” that the official, Ahmed Zia Massoud, “was ultimately allowed to keep without revealing the money’s origin or destination.” (Mr. Massoud denies taking any money out of Afghanistan.)
¶ A global computer hacking effort: China’s Politburo directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems in that country, a Chinese contact told the American Embassy in Beijing in January, one cable reported. The Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. They have broken into American government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002, cables said.
¶ Mixed records against terrorism: Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda, and the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a generous host to the American military for years, was the “worst in the region” in counterterrorism efforts, according to a State Department cable last December. Qatar’s security service was “hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals,” the cable said.
¶ An intriguing alliance: American diplomats in Rome reported in 2009 on what their Italian contacts described as an extraordinarily close relationship between Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister and business magnate, including “lavish gifts,” lucrative energy contracts and a “shadowy” Russian-speaking Italian go-between. They wrote that Mr. Berlusconi “appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin” in Europe. The diplomats also noted that while Mr. Putin enjoys supremacy over all other public figures in Russia, he is undermined by an unmanageable bureaucracy that often ignores his edicts.
¶ Arms deliveries to militants: Cables describe the United States’ failing struggle to prevent Syria from supplying arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which has amassed a huge stockpile since its 2006 war with Israel. One week after President Bashar al-Assad promised a top State Department official that he would not send “new” arms to Hezbollah, the United States complained that it had information that Syria was providing increasingly sophisticated weapons to the group. ¶ Clashes with Europe over human rights: American officials sharply warned Germany in 2007 not to enforce arrest warrants for Central Intelligence Agency officers involved in a bungled operation in which an innocent German citizen with the same name as a suspected militant was mistakenly kidnapped and held for months in Afghanistan. A senior American diplomat told a German official “that our intention was not to threaten Germany, but rather to urge that the German government weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the U.S.”
The 251,287 cables, first acquired by WikiLeaks, were provided to The Times by an intermediary on the condition of anonymity. Many are unclassified, and none are marked “top secret,” the government’s most secure communications status. But some 11,000 are classified “secret,” 9,000 are labeled “noforn,” shorthand for material considered too delicate to be shared with any foreign government, and 4,000 are designated both secret and noforn.
Many more cables name diplomats’ confidential sources, from foreign legislators and military officers to human rights activists and journalists, often with a warning to Washington: “Please protect” or “Strictly protect.”
The Times has withheld from articles and removed from documents it is posting online the names of some people who spoke privately to diplomats and might be at risk if they were publicly identified. The Times is also withholding some passages or entire cables whose disclosure could compromise American intelligence efforts.
The cables show that nearly a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the dark shadow of terrorism still dominates the United States’ relations with the world. They depict the Obama administration struggling to sort out which Pakistanis are trustworthy partners against Al Qaeda, adding Australians who have disappeared in the Middle East to terrorist watch lists, and assessing whether a lurking rickshaw driver in Lahore, Pakistan, was awaiting fares or conducting surveillance of the road to the American Consulate.
They show American officials managing relations with a China on the rise and a Russia retreating from democracy. They document years of painstaking effort to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon — and of worry about a possible Israeli strike on Iran with the same goal.
Even when they recount events that are already known, the cables offer remarkable details.
For instance, it has been previously reported that the Yemeni government has sought to cover up the American role in missile strikes against the local branch of Al Qaeda. But a cable’s fly-on-the-wall account of a January meeting between the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the American commander in the Middle East, is nonetheless breathtaking.
“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Mr. Saleh said, according to the cable sent by the American ambassador, prompting Yemen’s deputy prime minister to “joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament” that Yemeni forces had carried out the strikes.
Mr. Saleh, who at other times resisted American counterterrorism requests, was in a lighthearted mood. The authoritarian ruler of a conservative Muslim country, Mr. Saleh complains of smuggling from nearby Djibouti, but tells General Petraeus that his concerns are drugs and weapons, not whiskey, “provided it’s good whiskey.”
Likewise, press reports detailed the unhappiness of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, when he was not permitted to set up his tent in Manhattan or to visit ground zero during a United Nations session last year.
But the cables add to the tale a touch of scandal and alarm. They describe the volatile Libyan leader as rarely without the companionship of “his senior Ukrainian nurse,” described as “a voluptuous blonde.” They reveal that Colonel Qaddafi was so upset by his reception in New York that he balked at carrying out a promise to return dangerous enriched uranium to Russia. The American ambassador to Libya told Colonel Qaddafi’s son “that the Libyan government had chosen a very dangerous venue to express its pique,” a cable reported to Washington.
The cables also disclose frank comments behind closed doors. Dispatches from early this year, for instance, quote the aging monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, as speaking scathingly about the leaders of Iraq and Pakistan.
Speaking to another Iraqi official about Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, King Abdullah said, “You and Iraq are in my heart, but that man is not.” The king called President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan the greatest obstacle to that country’s progress. “When the head is rotten,” he said, “it affects the whole body.”
The American ambassador to Eritrea reported last year that “Eritrean officials are ignorant or lying” in denying that they were supporting the Shabab, a militant Islamist group in Somalia. The cable then mused about which seemed more likely.
As he left Zimbabwe in 2007 after three years as ambassador, Christopher W. Dell wrote a sardonic account of Robert Mugabe, that country’s aging and erratic leader. The cable called Mr. Mugabe “a brilliant tactician” but mocked “his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him the authority to suspend the laws of economics).”
The possibility that a large number of diplomatic cables might become public has been discussed in government and media circles since May. That was when, in an online chat, an Army intelligence analyst, Pfc. Bradley Manning, described having downloaded from a military computer system many classified documents, including “260,000 State Department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world.” In an online discussion with Adrian Lamo, a computer hacker, Private Manning said he had delivered the cables and other documents to WikiLeaks.
Mr. Lamo reported Private Manning’s disclosures to federal authorities, and Private Manning was arrested. He has been charged with illegally leaking classified information and faces a possible court-martial and, if convicted, a lengthy prison term.
In July and October, The Times, the British newspaper The Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel published articles based on documents about Afghanistan and Iraq. Those collections of dispatches were placed online by WikiLeaks, with selective redactions of the Afghan documents and much heavier redactions of the Iraq reports. The group has said it intends to post the documents in the current trove as well, after editing to remove the names of confidential sources and other details.
Fodder for Historians
Traditionally, most diplomatic cables remain secret for decades, providing fodder for historians only when the participants are long retired or dead. The State Department’s unclassified history series, entitled “Foreign Relations of the United States,” has reached only the year 1972.
While an overwhelming majority of the quarter-million cables provided to The Times are from the post-9/11 era, several hundred date from 1966 to the 1990s. Some show diplomats struggling to make sense of major events whose future course they could not guess.
In a 1979 cable to Washington, Bruce Laingen, an American diplomat in Teheran, mused with a knowing tone about the Iranian revolution that had just occurred: “Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism,” Mr. Laingen wrote, offering tips on exploiting this psyche in negotiations with the new government. Less than three months later, Mr. Laingen and his colleagues would be taken hostage by radical Iranian students, hurling the Carter administration into crisis and, perhaps, demonstrating the hazards of diplomatic hubris.
In 1989, an American diplomat in Panama City mulled over the options open to Gen. Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian leader, who was facing narcotics charges in the United States and intense domestic and international political pressure to step down. The cable called General Noriega “a master of survival”; its author appeared to have no inkling that one week later, the United States would invade Panama to unseat General Noriega and arrest him.
In 1990, an American diplomat sent an excited dispatch from Cape Town: he had just learned from a lawyer for Nelson Mandela that Mr. Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment was to end. The cable conveys the momentous changes about to begin for South Africa, even as it discusses preparations for an impending visit from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
The voluminous traffic of more recent years — well over half of the quarter-million cables date from 2007 or later — show American officials struggling with events whose outcomes are far from sure. To read through them is to become a global voyeur, immersed in the jawboning, inducements and penalties the United States wields in trying to have its way with a recalcitrant world.
In an era of satellites and fiber-optic links, the diplomatic cable retains the archaic name of an earlier technological era. It has long been the tool for the secretary of state to dispatch orders to the field and for ambassadors and political officers to send their analyses back to Washington.
The cables come with their own lexicon: “codel,” for a visiting Congressional delegation; “visas viper,” for a report on a person considered dangerous; “démarche,” an official message to a foreign government, often a protest or warning.
But the drama in the cables often comes from diplomats’ narratives of meetings with foreign figures, games of diplomatic poker in which each side is sizing up the other and neither is showing all its cards.
Among the most fascinating examples recount American officials’ meetings in September 2009 and February 2010 with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of the Afghan president and a power broker in the Taliban’s home turf of Kandahar.
They describe Mr. Karzai, “dressed in a crisp white shalwar kameez,” the traditional dress of loose tunic and trousers, appearing “nervous, though eager to express his views on the international presence in Kandahar,” and trying to win over the Americans with nostalgic tales about his years running a Chicago restaurant near Wrigley Field.
But in midnarrative there is a stark alert for anyone reading the cable in Washington: “Note: While we must deal with AWK as the head of the Provincial Council, he is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.” (Mr. Karzai has repeatedly denied such charges.) And the cables note statements by Mr. Karzai that the Americans, informed by a steady flow of eavesdropping and agents’ reports, believe to be false.
A cable written after the February meeting coolly took note of the deceit on both sides.
Mr. Karzai “demonstrated that he will dissemble when it suits his needs,” the cable said. “He appears not to understand the level of our knowledge of his activities. We will need to monitor his activity closely, and deliver a recurring, transparent message to him” about the limits of American tolerance.
Not all Business
Even in places far from war zones and international crises, where the stakes for the United States are not as high, curious diplomats can turn out to be accomplished reporters, sending vivid dispatches to deepen the government’s understanding of exotic places.
In a 2006 account, a wide-eyed American diplomat describes the lavish wedding of a well-connected couple in Dagestan, in Russia’s Caucasus, where one guest is the strongman who runs the war-ravaged Russian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The diplomat tells of drunken guests throwing $100 bills at child dancers, and nighttime water-scooter jaunts on the Caspian Sea.
“The dancers probably picked upwards of USD 5000 off the cobblestones,” the diplomat wrote. The host later tells him that Ramzan Kadyrov “had brought the happy couple ‘a five-kilo lump of gold’ as his wedding present.”
“After the dancing and a quick tour of the premises, Ramzan and his army drove off back to Chechnya,” the diplomat reported to Washington. “We asked why Ramzan did not spend the night in Makhachkala, and were told, ‘Ramzan never spends the night anywhere.’ ”