12.04.10

After the Leaks, the Shakeup

In the wake of the WikiLeaks cable disaster, Team Obama plans to reassign key U.S. embassy personnel—pulling those who were compromised and could be in danger. By Philip Shenon

The Obama administration is planning a major reshuffling of diplomats, military officers, and intelligence operatives at U.S. embassies around the world out of concern that WikiLeaks has made it impossible—if not dangerous—for many of the Americans to remain in their current posts.

Administration officials tell The Daily Beast that while planning is only in its preliminary stages, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA assume that they will have to shake up staffing at a number of American embassies and consulates within the coming months.

The shakeups are most likely at embassies where U.S. diplomats and other officials wrote classified cables— made public by WikiLeaks over the last week, or soon to be made public, with the Americans identified by name and title—in which they were harshly critical of corrupt or incompetent local government leaders.

Officials were reluctant to identify specific diplomats who might have to be removed from their posts. But they did not deny there were obvious candidates, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, a highly respected career diplomat who wrote in a 2009 cable—revealed in the initial WikiLeaks dump—that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi never travels without his "voluptuous blond" Ukrainian nurse.

"That's another part of the tragedy of this," said a senior U.S. national-security official. "We're going to have to pull out some of our best people—the diplomats who best represented the United States and were the most thoughtful in their analysis—because they dared to report back the truth about the nations in which they serve."

The State Department acknowledges that the WikiLeaks dump has done damage to American foreign policy, a problem that is likely to be compounded by the withdrawal of U.S. diplomats and other embassy officials who cannot be easily replaced because they are—not surprisingly—among the government's best-trained specialists on the foreign nations and regions where they are now posted.

Administration officials say that while some foreign governments have expressed outrage over the comments made in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks—among them, NATO allies France, Italy, and Turkey, as well as Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia—there has been no formal move by those governments so far to force the ouster of U.S. diplomats identified in the cables.

"We think it's only a matter of time, though," predicted a senior official. "You're bound to see some PNG-ing of our diplomats." (He was referring to the diplomatic term "persona non grata," applied when a government demands the removal of an unwelcome foreign diplomat.)

“We’re going to have to pull out some of our best people,” said a senior U.S. national-security official, “because they dared to report back the truth about the nations in which they serve.”

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"Then it gets more complicated, since we'll be put in the position of having to retaliate," the official continued. "They'll PNG our people, and we PNG some of their diplomats in return." In cases in which there is no formal protest, he said, the U.S. will still want to move diplomats out of their posts because they will have been effectively frozen out of any ability to interact with local government officials.

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to sue former U.S. Ambassador Eric Edelman over cables from 2004 in which Edelman appeared to suggest that Erdogan had hidden wealth in Swiss bank accounts.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Edelman, now teaching at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, would not discuss the contents of the cables, because they are officially still classified. But he said their public release was one small part of the "absolute catastrophe to American statecraft" that would be created by the WikiLeaks dump.

"There's every prospect of people getting killed over this," he said, noting that State Department cables often identify local intelligence contacts who might now be targeted for violence. "Certainly you're going to have to be very careful what you say to an American diplomat, if you say anything at all."

Administration officials say it is impossible to predict how many American diplomats and other embassy officials may have to be moved out of their posts, and from which embassies and consulates, because it is still unclear exactly what more WikiLeaks intends to make public.

WikiLeaks has suggested that it intends to release more than 250,000 State Department cables over the course of several weeks, or months. News organizations working with WikiLeaks have released only a small fraction of the cables that the whistleblowing website is reported to possess.

The release is almost certain to continue even if Australian-born WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is arrested, as appears increasingly likely given the renewed international warrant issued by prosecutors in Sweden in recent days over sexual-abuse allegations brought by two Swedish women. Assange, who denies the charges, is now reported to be in Britain.

The Obama administration appears to have given up all hope of stopping the release of the cables since Assange is believed to have shared the full library with some of his deputies within WikiLeaks.

State Department officials insisted there was no panic within the department over the release of the cables by WikiLeaks, especially since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her aides have anticipated the release of the cables for more than six months.

Bradley Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst arrested last May and accused of stealing the cables and turning them over to WikiLeaks, is reported to have boasted in an email chat that "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." (Manning is contesting the charges).

A White House official tells The Daily Beast that "there have been no heart attacks" and that the State Department has been working for months to try to identify the U.S. diplomats and their local intelligence sources whose work—and safety—might be compromised in the cables released by WikiLeaks.

"We've known about this for some time," Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, the department chief spokesman, told reporters last week. "The compromise happened months ago. And we have been working diligently with other agencies of government to assess the impact, understand what might have been downloaded and provided outside of the government. We've been prepared for this day for some time."

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C. Almost all of his career was spent at The New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1981 until 2008. He is the bestselling author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation . He has reported from several warzones and was one of two reporters from The Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.