WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Internal U.S. government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration’s public statements to the contrary.
A congressional official briefed on the reviews said the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.
“I think they just want to present the toughest front they can muster,” the official said.
But State Department officials have privately told Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable, said the official, one of two congressional aides familiar with the briefings who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
“We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging,” said the official, who attended a briefing given in late 2010 by State Department officials.
WikiLeaks caused a media and diplomatic uproar late last year when it began to dribble out its cache of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables.
Major headlines were generated by some of the cables, which revealed that Saudi leaders had urged U.S. military action against Iran and detailed contacts between U.S. diplomats and political dissidents and opposition leaders in some countries.
“From our standpoint, there has been substantial damage,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told Reuters.
“We believe that hundreds of people have been put at potential risk because their names have been compromised in the release of these cables,” he said.
National security officials familiar with the damage assessments being conducted by defense and intelligence agencies told Reuters the reviews so far have shown “pockets” of short-term damage, some of it potentially harmful. Long-term damage to U.S. intelligence and defense operations, however, is unlikely to be serious, they said.
Some of the cases of more serious damage have occurred in countries where WikiLeaks’ revelations have publicized closer ties with Washington than local officials publicly admit.
For example, a cable released by WikiLeaks quoted Yemen’s president saying he would allow U.S. personnel to engage in counter-terrorism operations on Yemeni territory even as he said publicly that the operations were being handled by domestic security forces.
U.S. officials say the continued media attention on such revelations has made it difficult for Washington to repair relations with governments critical to its counter-terrorism operations, such as Pakistan and Yemen.
Two U.S. intelligence officials said they were aware of specific cases where damage caused by WikiLeaks’ revelations have been assessed as serious to grave, though they said they could not discuss the subject matter because it remained highly classified.
Crowley said the State Department had helped move a small number of people compromised by the leaks to safer locations.
Damage assessments by the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community are still continuing, so the current view of many officials that damage has been limited could change if and when WikiLeaks and its media partners publish more documents.
The assessments also cover the leaking of tens of thousands of military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Special investigative teams are also combing through unpublished material which U.S. investigators believe is in the hands of WikiLeaks.
U.S. officials and sources close to WikiLeaks have said the website is sitting on a cache of documents related to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which includes intelligence-based risk assessments of detainees.
A spokeswoman for the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, which oversees all U.S. intelligence agencies, said, “The irresponsible and reckless behavior of WikiLeaks has of course caused damage and will continue to be damaging in the months and years to come.”
But current and former intelligence officials note that while WikiLeaks has released a handful of inconsequential CIA analytical reports, the website has made public few if any real intelligence secrets, including reports from undercover agents or ultra-sensitive technical intelligence reports, such as spy satellite pictures or communications intercepts.
Shortly before WikiLeaks began its gradual release of State Department cables last year, department officials sent emails to contacts on Capitol Hill predicting dire consequences, said one of the two congressional aides briefed on the internal government reviews.
However, shortly after stories about the cables first began to appear in the media, State Department officials were already privately playing down the damage, the two congressional officials said.
The U.S. government is examining whether criminal charges can be brought against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange is in London fighting extradition to Sweden for questioning in a sexual misconduct investigation.
Editing by Ross Colvin and Cynthia Osterman