Officials at Foggy Bottom and diplomats at U.S. embassies around the world are biting their nails as they await an investigation into claims by an Army intelligence analyst that he downloaded 260,000 classified State Department diplomatic cables and gave them to the whistleblower site Wikileaks.
The alleged leaker, 22 year-old Bradley Manning, told former hacker Adrian Lamo during an online chat that he had access to the cables, which he said exposed "almost-criminal political back dealings," according to Wired magazine's web site.
"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 reportedly told Lamo, who then turned Manning into authorities. He is currently under arrest in Kuwait.
The documents, which date back several years, were on a secure military network on which the State Department shares documents with officials in other parts of government - like the Department of Defense, who need analysis of U.S. foreign policy and national security issues.
The e-mails weren't addressed to Manning, but he had access to a network for documents that are broadly available and not the most sensitive U.S. intelligence. The network has cables that date back several years and contained information related to American diplomatic and intelligence efforts thought the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
But senior State Department officials say they aren't entirely sure yet what compartments of the network Manning had access to, what areas he read in on and what documents he downloaded, all of which are the subject of a Pentagon investigation. The potential damage could range from revealing sensitive information about U.S. foreign policy and national security issues to leaving U.S. officials and foreign governments with egg on their face. Then again, the cables could just be interesting reading for policy wonks or they could expose sensitive backroom deals with foreign governments, which could leave those leaders with some explaining to do to their publics.
The documents found on the network in question are mostly dealing with human intelligence, the lifeblood of the work of U.S. embassies. Many of the cables that are sent are analytical, with fairly straightforward insight. But that insight could reflect opinions of foreign governments and leaders which could prove embarrassing. Remember the cables U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry sent to Washington casting doubt on the reliability of President Hamid Karzai? That particular cable probably wasn't in the system Manning had access to, but it's easy to see how a cable released to the public can create embarrassment and tension with a host country.
If posted online, the cables could also reveal details about State Department operations, according to the department's spokesman.
"It has particular impact in terms of potentially revealing what we call 'sources and methods,' you know, compromising our ability to, you know, provide government leaders with the kind of analysis that they need to make informed decisions," a State Department spokesman said last week.
Because the documents pertain more to human intelligence, rather than intelligence systems, there is more angst at State and among embassies about the potential diplomatic fallout than there is serious concern that major intelligence was compromised. But the bottom lineis, out of 260,000 documents, officials recognize there is bound to be something with a decent degree of sensitivity in some of them.
One silver lining for officials is that because there is an investigation which could lead to possible criminal prosecution, the State Department doesn't expect the documents will be posted.
For its part, Wikileaks said on its Twitter page that it had not been sent the cables.
"Allegations in Wired that we have been sent 260,000 classified US embassy cables are, as far as we can tell, incorrect," Wikileaks posted on its Twitter page earlier this week.
As for State Department's concerns, Wikileaks noted that if they are concerned about the cables, the department hasn't tried to contact them about it.
"US State Department taking cable claim seriously," one tweet said. "But we have not been contacted."