A torrent of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks has been published in the last few days, with at least 170 of them naming sources whose identity was meant to be protected, according to an analysis of the documents by CNN.
Altogether nearly 143,000 of the cables obtained by WikiLeaks last year had been published by Tuesday, out of a total of 251,000 the group says it possesses.
Academics in China, human rights activists in Syria, bankers in Turkey, a Coca-Cola executive in Nepal and British members of Parliament are among dozens of confidential sources named in the cables, which have appeared unredacted on websites such as cablesearch.org.
On its website Tuesday, WikiLeaks said it had published 133,877 cables in the past week, but has denied any part in releasing unredacted cables, maintaining that it was “totally false” to suggest it had exposed any sources. On its Twitter feed WikiLeaks said: “The issue relates to a mainstream media partner and a malicious individual.”
WikiLeaks originally worked with a number of media outlets to redact the cables, but has recently fallen out with several of them, including The New York Times and The Guardian in the UK. WikiLeaks said a story on the latest releases that appeared in Tuesday’s edition of The New York Times, was a “sleazy hack job.”
Just how the unredacted cables found their way onto websites remains a matter of dispute. Last week a German magazine, Der Freitag, said it had found a large encrypted file online and was able to obtain the password to unlock it.
The WikiLeaks website was only intermittently available late Tuesday and Wednesday. The group said it had been a target of a cyber attack, saying on its Twitter feed Tuesday: “WikiLeaks.org is presently under attack.”
Responding to the latest releases, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday: “We continue to carefully monitor what becomes public and to take steps to mitigate the damage to national security and to assist those who may be harmed by these illegal disclosures to the extent that we can.”
The U.S. government has previously said that it reached out to sources whose names were in the cables. Some at risk from possible exposure in the cables are said to have been relocated.
Some sources face at worst potential embarrassment by being identified as sources, and many of the cables are marked as “confidential” rather than “secret.” But for others, especially in states with authoritarian regimes, their contacts with U.S. officials may be more hazardous.
One cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Syria in 2009 requested that the identity of three sources be strictly protected. Two were human rights activists, one of whom was briefly detained this year as unrest spread across the country. It does not appear that the activist’s detention in May was linked to the cable.
A “confidential” cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 2007 discussed Lebanese judges who might be nominated to the Special U.N. Tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The cable, from then U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, notes: “Strictly protect. These persons are at risk of being threatened or assassinated for agreeing to act as Tribunal judges.” The cable goes on to say that one possible nominee had confided to U.S. diplomats that “as an unmarried bachelor with no children and no close relatives in Lebanon, he is more dispensable than judges with family obligations.”
Another cable that quoted several representatives of Vietnam’s Muslim community was marked “Protect all.”
A cable from the embassy in Beijing discussed alleged links between pollution and birth defects. Two expert informants — both Chinese — were marked “strictly protect”, one of whom confided that “the Chinese government, in her view, does “not encourage” information about the relationship between pollution and birth defects to be made available.
Not all those identified are informants. One cable names 23 Australians alleged to have had contact with the radical Islamist cleric Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen. The cable, sent by the U.S. Embassy in Canberra in January 2010 recommends that all of them are placed on no-fly or terrorism watch lists.
The Australian Attorney General Robert McClelland condemned the publication of the cable Tuesday — saying that in the past “WikiLeaks has decided to redact identifying features where security operations or safety could be put at risk. This has not occurred in this case.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange responded that the Australian government had been caught “ratting out 23 Australians to the US embassy without due process.”
U.S. diplomats fear that the sudden release of so many cables, including the identities of many informants, will have a chilling effect on sources in the future, as well as posing problems for some of those now readily identifiable through the unredacted cables circulating online.