WikiLeaks disclosures are leading to diplomatic cracks for U.S.
The leaders of Russia and Turkey on Wednesday blasted the Obama administration over leaked U.S. diplomatic cables in the most concrete signs yet that the disclosures are rattling America’s strategic relationships.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned comments attributed in cables to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, saying the secretary was “deeply misled.” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a U.S. apology for cables alleging financial improprieties was insufficient.
“The United States is responsible for those diplomats’ false claims and their smears,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara, the Turkish capital.
The comments showed how the controversy is increasingly touching sensitive domestic politics in foreign countries and entangling individual U.S. officials. Although top U.S. officials continue to play down the cables’ effect on foreign policy, other voices suggest that the damage may be widespread as the more than 250,000 other communiques are gradually released.
“I’ll be very surprised if some people don’t lose their lives,” former President Clinton said in an appearance in North Carolina. “And goodness knows how many will lose their careers.”
American officials made similar claims of lives being endangered after WikiLeaks released a trove of Afghanistan war logs, assertions they later backed away from.
The cables, released Sunday by the WikiLeaks website, emerged at a delicate moment in U.S.-Russian relations, amid tensions over an arms reduction treaty that is in peril and persistent friction over missile defense.
Putin, in an interview for broadcast Wednesday on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” rejected criticism attributed in cables to Gates that “Russian democracy has disappeared” and that his government was “an oligarchy run by security services.”
“To our American colleagues, I would like to advise you not to interfere with the sovereign choice of the Russian people,” Putin said. He noted that when Russian officials raise questions about the U.S. system, they are told: “Don’t interfere with our affairs.”
Putin said a cable’s suggestion that he was Batman and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev played the role of Robin in the Russian government was intended “to slander one of us.”
He quoted unidentified experts suggesting that the cables may be fake and put in circulation for unknown political purposes.
“We didn’t expect the assessment of our interaction to be done with such haughtiness, coarseness and so unethically,” Putin told King, according to a transcript released in Russia.
On Wednesday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that some cables suggested links between Putin and Russian organized crime. WikiLeaks has posted only 505 of the 251,287 messages it says it has obtained, but all of the messages have been made available to five publications, including the Guardian.
Erdogan’s fiery reaction came after the main opposition party in Turkey set up a committee to investigation allegations in a cable that he has multiple Swiss bank accounts.
Erdogan said he would resign if the opposition could prove the allegations were true, and demanded that the Obama administration take steps to see that the U.S. diplomats “are held to account.”
“To accept as true the lies and slander that emanate from the personal hatred of one or two former ambassadors, and to accuse the government, is a great wrong,” he said.
One of the cables, sent out under the name of former U.S. Ambassador Eric S. Edelman in 2004, said the embassy had heard from two sources that Erdogan had eight accounts in Swiss banks. It questioned Erdogan’s statements that his personal wealth had been supplemented by wedding presents friends had given his son. It also said that a Turkish businessman was covering the cost of having Erdogan’s four children educated in the United States.
The cable said Erdogan’s explanation that the businessman’s motives were altruistic was “lame.”
Another cable, dated Feb. 27, 2009, said Erdogan’s friends were benefitting from Turkey’s business deals with Iran.
The U.S. government has offered an apology for the cables, Erdogan said, “but we do not consider this sufficient.”
The cables included wide-ranging critiques of the Turkish government. They questioned the competence of some officials and their religious motivations and suggested that the government was increasingly looking eastward, away from its Western connections.
The disclosures have come at a time of unusual tension between the two allied governments, which have clashed over issues including Iran’s nuclear program and a NATO missile defense program aimed at protecting Europe from Iranian missiles.
As in Russia, there were signs that the cables are being interpreted in Turkey as an American dirty trick designed to discredit the government.
Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said many Turks have begun to believe that the cables were an American fabrication, and that Erdogan’s criticism of the U.S. government might play well with his Turkish audience.
But he said the corruption allegations are a more serious political issue for Erdogan, including with his party’s religious base. The party built its support on its reputation for being free of corruption.
While Turkish officials are playing down the disclosures, “privately they are concerned about the impact of the documents, and about additional damage from further revelations that may be still ahead,” Aliriza said.
The White House said Wednesday Russell E. Travers, information-sharing chief at the National Counterterrorism Center, had been given the job of tightening the U.S. government’s computer security, as well as tracking down how thousands of files had been stolen.
A former senior U.S. official, assessing damage from the disclosures, said that although parts of the diplomatic disruption may be short-lived, “if the continuing leaks mean we’re going to go through a paroxysm like this every couple of months, that definitely won’t be good.”
In the case of Turkey, the relationship “is already somewhat battered and strained,” he added.
In Kazakhstan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a fence-mending meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was described in the cables as “feckless, vain and ineffective.”
Although the two beamed and shook hands, U.S. officials acknowledged that Berlusconi had been offended by the comments.
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.