WASHINGTON — The whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks made public its entire cache of pirated State Department cables Thursday night in a torrent of once secret information that is sure to renew debate over the impact of one of the largest security breaches in U.S. history.
After nearly nine months in which the 251,287 cables had been trickling out at a pace that guaranteed there would be WikiLeaks documents still unreleased 10 years from now, the website announced on Twitter that all of the cables had been made public.
"Shining a light on 45 years of U.S. 'diplomacy,' it is time to open the archives forever," WikiLeaks said. The "tweet" included a link to the WikiLeaks website, showing all the cables had been made public.
In a statement emailed to reporters Thursday morning, WikiLeaks had anticipated the release, saying that in recent days it had become well known on the web that a book about WikiLeaks published last February by the British newspaper The Guardian contained the password that would allow anyone to open an encrypted file containing all the information that had been widely circulated on the Internet last year.
"Knowledge of the Guardian disclosure has spread privately over several months but reached critical mass last week," the statement said. WikiLeaks said it would release the remaining files to protect their impact on news events.
"Revolutions and reforms are in danger of being lost as the unpublished cables spread to intelligence contractors and governments before the public," the statement said.
That claim is likely to be challenged in coming days by many who believe WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have exaggerated their impact on recent events, though the organization will also have its defenders.
In its statement, WikiLeaks took credit for helping to spark the Arab Spring with its publication, in partnership with the French newspaper Le Monde, of scathing cables from the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia about the now deposed Tunsian President Zine el Abidin Ben Ali and his family. It also said its quick publication of cables revealing Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman's ties to the CIA helped scuttle the possibility he would replace deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
But those claims are likely also to be balanced with debate over whether releasing the entire unredacted cache will place at risk innocent people whose names appear in the cables as sources of information for U.S. diplomats.
A search by McClatchy Newspapers of the cables found 1,900 in which U.S. diplomats had flagged the identities of sources with the admonition "strictly protect," though it is unclear how much danger many of those people would face. Among the individuals whose names carried that admonition was the finance minister of Mexico, the CEO of the ConocoPhillips oil company, and the American company Procter & Gamble.
But many others might be at risk of persecution including Shiite Muslim clerics in Sunni Saudi Arabia, religious leaders in Vietnam and businessmen willing to talk to American officials about life in places like Iran.
Despite the seeming suddenness of the release, it had been clear for some time that Assange had grown impatient with the slow pace with which the cables had been dribbling out.
WikiLeaks, in partnership with a small group of U.S. and European news outlets, began making the cables public Nov. 28. Under that arrangement, WikiLeaks would only post cables after the news organizations had read them and removed from them any information that would identify people whose lives publication might endanger.
But that arrangement guaranteed that the release of the cables would be slow, and the number of published cables languished in the low four figures for months.
Assange brought in more media partners, including McClatchy Newspapers, and began partnerships with regional news organizations around the world in hopes of speeding publication. Still, by mid August, fewer than 10 percent of the cables had been made public.
That began to change in late August as WikiLeaks began publishing tens of thousands of cables on its own and encouraging its 1 million followers on Twitter to read them and tweet their findings with the hash tag #wlfind.
Most of those cables were relatively benign unclassified documents, but the sudden release of so many cables — 133,000 additional cables in less than 10 days — raised questions of whether anyone could possibly have had the time to read them carefully and whether they might contain information that would put U.S. diplomats' sources in danger.
Then WikiLeaks released the full file.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011