The United States was catapulted into a worldwide diplomatic crisis today, with the leaking to the international media of more than 250,000 classified cables from its embassies, many sent as recently as February this year.
There are 251,287 dispatches in all, from more than 250 US embassies and consulates. They reveal how the US deals with both its allies and its enemies – negotiating, pressuring and sometimes brusquely denigrating foreign leaders, all behind the firewalls of ciphers and secrecy classifications that diplomats assume to be secure. The leaked cables range up to the "SECRET NOFORN" level, which means they are meant never to be shown to non-US citizens.
As well as conventional political analyses, some of the cables contain detailed accounts of corruption by foreign regimes, as well as intelligence on undercover arms shipments, human trafficking and sanction-busting efforts by would-be nuclear states such as Iran and Libya. Some are based on interviews with local sources while others are general impressions and briefings written for top state department visitors who may be unfamiliar with local nuances.
Intended to be read by officials in Washington up to the level of the secretary of state, the cables are generally drafted by the ambassador or subordinates. Although their contents are often startling and troubling, the cables are unlikely to gratify conspiracy theorists. They do not contain evidence of assassination plots, CIA bribery or such criminal enterprises as the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan years, when anti-Nicaraguan guerrillas were covertly financed.
How did it happen?
All this information is stored on a database that only authorised personnel are allowed to access. Users are issued a username and a "strong" password (of 10 characters or more, at least two capitals, two numbers and two special symbols), which must be changed at least every 150 days. In theory the user has to stay at the computer at all times while logged on, logging off even to go to the toilet or get a cup of coffee.
It ought to have been secure but then Bradley Manning, aged 22, who has been held in solitary confinement for the last seven months and is facing a court martial in the new year managed to copy the files to a rewriteable CD that he took into work with him at a base in Baghdad. He then passed on the files to WikiLeaks who are publishing them onto the Internet. In his own words, Manning says it was childishly easy.
Should he have done it?
Definitely not and neither should WikiLeaks have published the material. Julian Assange's claim to be performing a public duty is nonsense. Some of the material may be amusing bot a lot of it will cause diplomatic furore and may even risk people's lives. Because you can do something like that does not mean you should go ahead.
Mind you, the international press didn't have to go along with the game and publish the disclosures did they?