By BARBARA FERGUSON | ARAB NEWS
Published: Nov 29, 2010 21:35 Updated: Nov 30, 2010 00:20
WASHINGTON: The Obama White House is in turmoil after whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks began publishing more secret government files on Sunday which Der Spiegel called “nothing short of a political meltdown for US foreign policy.”
On Monday President Obama ordered a government-wide review of how agencies safeguard sensitive information.
The United States said on Monday that it deeply regretted the release of any classified information and would tighten security to prevent leaks such as WikiLeaks’ disclosure of a trove of State Department cables.
The US Justice Department said it was conducting a criminal investigation of the leak of classified documents and the White House, State Department and Pentagon all said they were taking steps to prevent such disclosures in future.
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would not comment directly on the cables or their substance, she said the United States would take aggressive steps to hold responsible those who “stole” them.
“The United States deeply regrets the disclosure of any information that was intended to be confidential, including private discussions between counterparts or our diplomats’ personal assessments and observations,” she told reporters.
Echoing earlier US condemnations of the leak, she said “it puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems.”
The White House ordered government agencies to tighten procedures for handling classified information.
The new procedures would ensure “that users do not have broader access than is necessary to do their jobs effectively,” according to a directive from the White House Office of Management and Budget released on Monday.
Among other disclosures in the newspaper were suspicions Iran has obtained sophisticated missiles from North Korea capable of hitting western Europe and US concerns Iran is using those as “building blocks” for longer-range missiles.
The WikiLeaks documents which referred to Saudi Arabia distrust of Iran “do not concern the Kingdom,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said on Monday. “These documents do not concern the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Nor has the Kingdom had any role in producing them,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Osama Nugali told AFP.
“Nor is it aware of their authenticity. Therefore Saudi Arabia cannot comment on them,” he said. “The Kingdom’s policies and positions have always been clear.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Monday Tehran’s relations with its neighbors would not be harmed by WikiLeaks’ revelations of deep Arab suspicions of Iranian motives, saying Washington organized the leak to pursue political objectives.
Soon after, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters at the Justice Department that the administration would prosecute if violations of federal law are found in a criminal investigation of the incident.
The director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Jacob Lew, said in ordering the agency-wide assessment Monday that the disclosures are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
This is the third major document leak by the website, with over 477,000 war logs from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts released earlier in the year. These were the 220 of 251,287 classified ‘cables’ – written by US diplomats and intended for government eyes only – which gave some unflattering assessments of world leaders has caused embarrassment to the administration.
“This is worse than the military leaks, because it deals with civilian operations. This involves the trust people have in us, and the risk is that they won’t want to talk to us anymore,” a retired Foreign Service officer anonymously told Arab News.
The army soldier suspected of obtaining the information, intelligence analyst Bradley Manning, 22, has been held in solitary confinement for seven months at a Marine base in Quantico, Va., and is facing a court martial next year.
Over at the State Department, Clinton led a frantic damage control exercise over the Thanksgiving weekend as Washington prepared foreign leaders for the often unflattering revelations, contacting leaders in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, France, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The reaction was swift and visceral in Washington. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the leak “a reckless action which jeopardizes lives by exposing raw, contemporaneous intelligence.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee said WikiLeaks should be officially designated as a terrorist organization.
King also contacted Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to “criminally charge WikiLeaks activist Julian Assange under the Espionage Act” for conspiracy to disclose classified information. The Espionage Act makes it illegal to disclose “information relating to the national defense” if that information could be used “to the injury of the United States.”
The Defense Department’s new initiatives, which include both short- and long-term solutions, aim to prevent the potential for another theft of classified information. For example, officials said they were disabling all “write” capability to removable media such as thumb drives or disks, on DOD classified computers, “as a temporary technical solution to mitigate the future risks of personnel moving classified data to unclassified systems.”
“The bottom line,” said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman of the new measures, is “it is now much more difficult for a determined actor to get access to and move information outside of authorized channels.”
But the administration is already being criticized for allowing the leak in the first place. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Michigan, said the WikiLeaks release was a failure of the administration to safeguard information that was critical to diplomatic relations and national security.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, slammed international whistleblower WikiLeaks on Sunday, ahead of a reported data dump that opponents say could damage US diplomatic efforts around the world.
“Leaking the material is deplorable,” Graham told ‘Fox News Sunday.’ “The people at WikiLeaks could have blood on their hands,” he said, “I don’t know what the cables may say, but we’re at war. The world is getting dangerous by the day. People who do this are low on the food chain as far as I’m concerned. If you can prosecute them, let’s try.”
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the he Obama administration “to use all legal means necessary to shut down WikiLeaks before it can do more damage by releasing additional cables. WikiLeaks’ activities represent a shared threat to collective international security.”
— With input from agencies
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