WASHINGTON — The Obama administration moved Monday to contain potential damage to U.S. national security from the WikiLeaks release of tens of thousands of sensitive U.S. diplomatic documents and said it might take criminal action against the whistle-blowing Internet site.
The White House directed a government-wide review of guidelines for classified information handling, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered tighter safeguards for U.S. diplomatic communications. Meanwhile, the CIA was assessing harm done to U.S. intelligence operations.
“This is a serious violation of the law,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “This is a serious threat to individuals that both carry out and assist our foreign policy.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said that “an active, ongoing criminal investigation” was under way, and he indicated that foreigners associated with WikiLeaks, including its Australian founder, Julian Assange, could be targeted.
“Let me be very clear. It’s not saber-rattling. To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law . . . they will be held responsible. They will be held accountable,” Holder said. “To the extent that there are gaps in our laws, we will move to close those gaps, which is not to say that anybody at this point, because of their citizenship or residence, is not a target or a subject of an investigation that is ongoing.”
Clinton said the release of the cables was “not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community, the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.”
At the same time, senior administration officials began moderating their assessment of the potential harm done by the leaked documents, the first batch of which was released Sunday. While lives could be at risk and ties with some countries hurt, they said, relationships with key governments will weather the fallout.
“I am confident that the partnerships that the Obama administration has worked so hard to build will withstand this challenge,” said Clinton, who took pains at a news conference not to confirm the authenticity of the materials, calling them “alleged cables.”
In the latest revelations, a Feb. 3, 2010, cable from the U.S. ambassador to South Korea quoted the country’s vice foreign minister as saying that “China would not be able to stop North Korea’s collapse” after the death of its ailing dictator, Kim Jong Il.
The isolated nuclear-armed Stalinist nation has “already collapsed economically and would collapse politically” two or three years after Kim dies, South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo was quoted as telling U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens in the secret cable to Washington written by Stephens.
Chun said unidentified “sophisticated Chinese officials” – whose names were redacted from the cable -- believed that the divided Korean peninsula should be reunited under the control of a South Korea in a “benign alliance” with the United States.
There was no way to confirm how widespread the view of these two officials is within the Chinese leadership.
Clinton said she'd ordered “new security safeguards” to protect State Department information carried on Defense Department computer systems “and elsewhere . . . so that this kind of breach cannot and does not happen ever again."
CIA officials, meanwhile, were poring over the cables “to assess the extent of any intelligence concerns,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The White House released a letter sent to every U.S. department and agency by Jacob J. Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, ordering each “to establish a security assessment team . . . to review the . . . implementation of procedures for safeguarding classified information against improper disclosures.”
Noting that the Obama administration has brought charges in recent months in four cases involving leaks of classified information, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said that the panel is considering whether legislation is needed to tighten access to classified material.
“We are also looking at strengthening administrative sanctions against individuals who leak,” said Feinstein, D-Calif. Clinton used her first public comments on the leaks to justify the administration’s preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program. The views of Arab and European leaders detailed in the cables showed the extent to which they share the fear that Tehran is secretly developing weapons, she said.
“The comments that are being reported on, allegedly, from the cables, confirm the fact that Iran poses a very serious threat in the eyes of many of her neighbors and a serious concern far beyond the (Middle East) region.” she said. “That is why the international community came together to pass the strongest possible sanctions against Iran.”
Iran, which has been hit by four rounds of U.N. sanctions and unilateral U.S. and European measures for defying U.N. demands to halt its nuclear activities, insists that its program is for peaceful purposes.
Clinton said the United States “deeply regrets the disclosure of any information that was intended to be confidential.”
She spoke just before departing on a trip to Central Asia and the Persian Gulf during which she's almost certain to find herself in awkward conversations with some of the leaders and diplomats whose confidential views or unflattering portraits are detailed in the leaked cables.
The first batch of cables appeared to contain no major bombshells. But they did reveal American diplomats’ embarrassing portraits of international leaders, U.S. intelligence information, the confidential views of human rights activists, journalists and opposition figures, and stark differences between public pronouncements by American and foreign officials and the stances they privately held.
One example of that disparity came in a cable that outlined private U.S. concerns over Pakistan’s nuclear program, which top administration and American military officials have repeatedly said they think is secure.
The cable, from former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson, discussed an unsuccessful U.S. effort to remove highly enriched uranium, which is used as nuclear weapons fuel, from a Pakistani research reactor because of fears that it could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.
Pakistan refused to surrender the material.
The WikiLeaks documents also will complicate Pakistani relations with key ally Saudi Arabia, with Saudi King Abdullah quoted commenting about Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s alleged corruption.
“When the head is rotten, it affects the whole body,” Abdullah was quoted as saying of the Pakistani leader.
WikiLeaks on Sunday released the first batch of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, some 11,000 of which were classified secret, in coordination with The New York Times and four European news publications that received access to them in advance.
New batches of documents were to be made public throughout the week.
WikiLeaks also gave The New York Times and two of the European publications thousands of U.S. military reports from Iraq and Afghanistan that were released earlier this year.
The online whistle-blowing site, which publishes restricted government documents and other materials, is alleged to have received the cables from a U.S. Army intelligence analyst with access to a Pentagon-run computer system that carries defense and diplomatic documents classified up to secret.
While U.S. news outlets reported both the serious details and the gossip in the leaked trove, many foreign newspapers scoured the documents for issues of local interest.
Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo reported Monday that it had seen six private communications sent by Clifford Sobel, the U.S. ambassador in Brazil in 2008, in which he criticized Brazil’s refusal to pass laws that specifically define terrorist acts. Two of these communiques, the Folha report said, criticized Dilma Rousseff, then a presidential aide and now president-elect of Latin America’s largest nation.
Likewise, in Spain, the large daily El Pais said Monday that it had reviewed 3,620 documents tied to the U.S. Embassy in Spain and found that three Bush administration ambassadors in Madrid passed to the CIA numerous details on Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a fiery Socialist who was running for president of a nation led at that time by a conservative ally of President George W. Bush.
El Pais also reported that Clinton — at the behest of her subordinates — asked the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires to assess Argentine President Cristina Kirchner’s mental health, a reasonable question when done in confidence that now — before the international public — could add tension to U.S.-Argentine relations.
Cables from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad revealed that the U.S. military had targeted two Iranian nationals in northern Iraq, who then fled to Iran and applied to enter Iraq as diplomats. The U.S. informed Iraq that if given visas, the Iranians would be targeted once again.
(Margaret Talev and Kevin G. Hall in Washington and special correspondent Saeed Shah in Islamabad contributed to this article.) MORE FROM MCCLATCHY