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06.08.10

The State Department's Worst Nightmare

An Army intel analyst charged with leaking classified materials also downloaded sensitive diplomatic cables. Are America’s foreign policy secrets about to go online? Philip Shenon reports.

The State Department and American embassies around the world are bracing for what officials fear could be the massive, unauthorized release of secret diplomatic cables in which U.S. diplomats harshly evaluate foreign leaders and reveal the inner-workings of American foreign policy.

Diplomatic and law-enforcement officials tell The Daily Beast their alarm stems from the arrest of a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst based in Iraq who has reportedly admitted that he downloaded 260,000 diplomatic cables from government computer networks and was prepared to make them public.

“If he really had access to these cables, we've got a terrible situation on our hands," said an American diplomat.

Specialist Bradley Manning of Potomac, Maryland, who is now under arrest in Kuwait, is also accused of having leaked—to Wikileaks, a secretive Internet site based in Sweden—an explosive video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007 that left 12 people dead, including two employees of the news agency Reuters. The website released the video in April.

“If he really had access to these cables, we've got a terrible situation on our hands," said an American diplomat. "We're still trying to figure out what he had access to. A lot of my colleagues overseas are sweating this out, given what those cables may contain.”

Philip Shenon: Pentagon ManhuntHe said Manning apparently had special access to cables prepared by diplomats and State Department officials throughout the Middle East regarding the workings of Arab governments and their leaders.

The cables, which date back over several years, went out over interagency computer networks available to the Army and contained information related to American diplomatic and intelligence efforts in the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, the diplomat said.

He added that the State Department and law-enforcement agencies are trying to determine whether, and how, to approach Wikileaks to urge the site not to publish the cables, given the damage they could do to diplomatic efforts involving the United States and its allies.

Wikileaks, a website based in Sweden, that promotes itself as a global champion of whistleblowers, did not reply to emails from The Daily Beast.

In a comment on the social networking website Twitter, Wikileaks said that allegations that “we have been sent 260,000 classified U.S. embassy cables are, as far as we can tell, incorrect.” Wikileaks said it did not know the identity of the source who provided it with the 2007 video from Iraq. If Manning did leak the video, the site said, he is “a national hero.”

The State Department’s chief spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, said Monday that the department was involved in the Pentagon-led investigation to try to track down any cables that Manning may have stolen from interagency computer networks.

“These are classified documents,” he said. “We take their release seriously.” He said the public release of diplomatic cables could do damage to national security since they could reveal the  "source and methods" used by the United States to gather intelligence overseas.

Even more alarming, diplomats say, is the idea that foreign leaders will now read what American diplomats have written about them in secret cables sent to Washington—evaluations of the leaders’ personalities, intelligence and honesty, among other things.

Alan K. Henrikson, a professor of diplomatic history at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said the State Department should be “very nervous” at the prospect of the release of such a huge library of internal cables.

He said he would urge the department to try to comment as little as possible about the situation in hopes that, if the cables do become public, the aftermath can be dealt with foreign governments behind closed doors. “That’s diplomacy,” he said.

The State Department has suggested that, even if Wikileaks does not have the cables at the moment, the government still believes Manning had downloaded a huge library of the department’s cables and stored them somewhere.

Officials said that Pentagon investigators are searching through email accounts maintained by Manning as well as his computer hard drives in search of evidence of what cables he read—and where he may have sent them. It is not clear what, if anything, the American government could do to prevent Wikileaks or other foreign-based websites from disclosing the cables.

The Pentagon, which has said it is conducting an aggressive investigation, has not made Specialist Manning available for comment.

Manning’s arrest was first reported by Wired magazine, which said it had obtained a copy of an internet chat log in which Manning bragged to a former computer hacker about having leaked the video and the diplomatic cables to the website.

Wired said Manning told the former hacker, who had been profiled in the magazine, that he had stolen 260,000 classified American diplomatic cables from government computers and passed them on to Wikileaks.

“Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public,” he wrote, according to Wired. Kevin Poulsen, a senior editor at Wired, said in an interview that in the chat log, Manning did not specify the dates or identify the subject of the diplomatic cables, except to say that they contained scandalous information.

“Manning clearly did have access to top-secret networks and information, and he had a great deal of detailed information about how he supposedly interacted” with Wikileaks, Poulsen said. “That doesn’t prove that he leaked anything. But he was very convincing in the details he did give.”

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.