Hundreds of thousands of State Department documents leaked Sunday revealed a hidden world of backstage international diplomacy, divulging candid comments from world leaders and detailing occasional US pressure tactics aimed at hot spots in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea.
The classified diplomatic cables released by online whistle-blower WikiLeaks and reported on by news organisations in the United States and Europe provided often unflattering assessments of foreign leaders, ranging from US allies such as Germany and Italy to other nations like Libya, Iran and Afghanistan.
The cables also contained new revelations about long-simmering nuclear trouble spots, highlighting US, Israeli and Arab world fears of Iran's growing nuclear programme, American concerns about Pakistan's atomic arsenal and US discussions about a united Korean peninsula as a long-term solution to North Korean aggression.
There are also American memos encouraging US diplomats at the United Nations to collect detailed data about the UN secretary general, his team and foreign diplomats – going beyond what is considered the normal run of information-gathering expected in diplomatic circles.
Some of the revelations are particularly explosive, and their publication would prove problematic for the officials concerned – a certainty that prompted US diplomats to scramble in recent days to shore up relations with key allies in advance of the disclosures.
The documents published by The New York Times, France's Le Monde, Britain's Guardian newspaper, German magazine Der Spiegel and others laid out the behind-the-scenes conduct of Washington's international relations, shrouded in public by platitudes, smiles and handshakes at photo sessions among senior officials.
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." It also 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."
State Department spokesman PJ Crowley played down the 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." On its website, 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."
In a statement released Sunday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said, "The cables show the US spying on its allies and the UN turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuse in 'client states', backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries and lobbying for US corporations."
Their release – the first in a series of planned releases over the next few months – "reveals the contradictions between the US's public persona and what it says behind closed doors," Assange said.
The New York Times, The Guardian and Le Monde on Sunday defended their decision to publish hundreds of secret US diplomatic memos obtained by WikiLeaks while voluntarily withholding certain information.
The Times, in a note to readers, said it believes 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."
At the same time, the newspaper said it has "taken care to exclude, in its articles and in supplementary material, in print and online, information that would endanger confidential informants or compromise national security."
Both The Guardian and Le Monde said they had made voluntary reductions in the 250,000 diplomatic cables.
Germany's Der Spiegel and Spain's El Pais also received the memos and Le Monde said that all five publications had worked together to edit out names whose public release could put persons in physical danger.
The Times said it had submitted the cables it planned to post to the US government and "invited them to challenge publication of any information that, in the official view, would harm the national interest."
The newspaper said it had "agreed to some, but not all" of the redactions suggested by US officials.
"The question of dealing with classified information is rarely easy, and never to be taken lightly," theTimes said. "Editors try to balance the value of the material to public understanding against potential dangers to the national interest.
"For The Times to ignore this material would be to deny its own readers the careful reporting and thoughtful analysis they expect when this kind of information becomes public," it said.
"But the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money.
"As daunting as it is to publish such material over official objections, it would be presumptuous to conclude that Americans have no right to know what is being done in their name," theTimes said.
The centre-left Guardian argued that most of the US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks had already been posted on a US government intranet site with a "very wide" audience and were thus barely secret.
"They may have been marked 'secret' but all secrets are relative: there are around three million Americans cleared to read material thus classified," it said.
"There are some cables the Guardian will not be releasing or reporting owing to the nature of sourcing or subject matter," the newspaper said, adding that "domestic libel laws impose a special burden on British publishers."
Le Monde said it believed its mission was to "examine the documents, subject them to journalistic analysis and make them available to our readers.
"To inform, however, does not rule out acting responsibly," Le Monde said. "Transparency and judgement are not incompatible – and that is undoubtedly what distinguishes our strategy from that at the heart of WikiLeaks."