The massive leak of secret diplomatic cables sent a tremor from Washington through world capitals Monday, exposing deception and scheming that world leaders take great pains to keep private and complicating some of America's most sensitive strategic relations.
Release of the cables by the WikiLeaks website Sunday shocked a culture built on the expectation that candid discussions should remain exactly that — amounting, in the words of the Italian foreign minister, to the "Sept. 11 of world diplomacy."
Diplomats and world leaders said the revelations probably would make them less forthcoming in their discussions and their reports back home, a development that could make it more difficult to manage policy and head off problems. There were indications that the leak could cause a backlash in countries vital to U.S. interests, such as Pakistan and Yemen.
Obama administration officials had worked for days before the documents were released to limit the damage. Stung by the cables' unflattering views of foreign leaders and governments, they scrambled Monday to show that they were properly safeguarding their vast stores of confidential information.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and other officials appeared publicly to declare they were moving aggressively to protect government secrets and punish those who stole them.
Clinton insisted that the cables did not represent the official U.S. view. "Our official policy is not set through these messages, but here in Washington," she said.
WikiLeaks has released 272 diplomatic cables from a trove of more than 250,000. The remainder are to be dribbled out in coming weeks to provide maximum impact, the website says. A number of foreign diplomats acknowledged that the release could affect some of the most sensitive ongoing global issues and relationships.
The documents quote leaders privately denigrating counterparts they refrain from criticizing in public — or praise as trusted partners.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the cables could hurt the long-frustrated efforts to form a new government. "There is a mere chance for government formation, and it's poisoned by these reports," he said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is quoted as saying Iranian officials "are big, fat liars." The cables show the concerns many Arab nations have about Iran's nuclear program, with a number of leaders encouraging the United States to take military action if necessary to thwart it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters that the disclosures would make it harder for U.S. diplomats to be honest in their assessments and would make foreign leaders more cautious.
"It's clear this will happen," Netanyahu told the Assn. of Tel Aviv Journalists.
A diplomat from an Arab country said that for at least a while, Middle Eastern diplomats "are likely to be much more guarded in what they say" to U.S. officials. "There will be a trust issue now in sensitive conversations with Americans."
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the revelations about the Middle East contained "no smoking gun " — nothing that differed sharply from what people in the region believe.
Nevertheless, "this brings it all out in a very public way," he said, predicting that there could be reaction in some countries as the disclosures gradually are reported in the Arab news media.
The cables may stir a strong political reaction in Pakistan, where much of the public deeply distrusts the United States.
One cable said the U.S. government has tried repeatedly to persuade the Pakistani government to give some nuclear material to the U.S. for safekeeping because officials feared it could fall into the hands of dangerous groups. Many Pakistanis believe the United States has been plotting to seize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
"Every Pakistani nationalist who has railed against U.S. manipulation of their government can now argue they have the smoking gun," said James Lindsay, a senior National Security Council aide during the Clinton administration who is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. "There are a lot of things we want the Pakistani government to do, and they may be jeopardized by this data dump." Pakistan's leading English-language newspaper, the Dawn, carried a lead headline: "U.S. trying to remove enriched Pak uranium: WikiLeaks."
The cables may also bring a sharp public reaction in Yemen, a country with a weak government and a public wary of cooperation with the United States. Yemen is increasingly becoming a source of concern for U.S. policymakers. Militants there have been the source of two thwarted terrorist attacks — the effort to bring down a passenger jet as it approached Detroit last Christmas, and bombs placed last month in packages on two cargo planes bound for the U.S.
One of the cables quotes Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh, in a conversation with U.S. Gen. David H. Petraeus, offering to lie to conceal U.S. strikes against militants.
"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh is quoted as saying at a meeting last January.
"This is obviously going to create some political problems for Saleh," Lindsay said. "The great unknown is how stiff those problems will be."
The cables also offered unflattering descriptions of a range of leaders. They referred to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as "the alpha dog," assessed that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was "risk-averse and rarely creative" and that Putin had made Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi his "mouthpiece" in Europe. One cable said that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was surrounded by a "cabal of incompetent advisors."
Secretary Clinton insisted that "the partnerships that the Obama administration has worked so hard to build will withstand this challenge."
She said one foreign official laughed off the disclosures, saying, "You should hear what we say about you."
Times staff writers Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow, Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem, Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo, Alex Rodriguez in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.