Embassies around the world are abuzz today following the disclosure of 250,000 confidential cables by the website Wikileaks. Some insiders say the release could do real damage to U.S. relations with a range of countries, while others say the revelations are more embarrassing than dangerous. Join us as we make sense of the leak and what it tells us about global diplomacy.


  • Michael Hirsh Senior Correspondent, National Journal
  • Anne Penketh Washington Program Director, British American Security Information Council; Former Diplomatic Editor, "The Independent" (U.K.)
  • Susan Glasser Executive Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine


  • 13:39:32

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's an information leak that's put the private business of American diplomacy on public display. Yesterday, the website Wikileaks published more than 250,000 confidential State Department documents. American officials have warned that the leaks have the potential to damage sensitive relationships with foreign countries and potentially put U.S. personnel in danger.

  • 13:39:53

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut some are also arguing that despite the initial embarrassment, the leaks reveal examples of some shrewd diplomacy and that, in the long run, they may strengthen the U.S. hand on several crucial issues. Joining us by telephone from Washington to discuss, this is Michael Hirsch, chief correspondent at National Journal. He's a former senior editor and foreign editor at Newsweek. Michael, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:40:17

    MR. MICHAEL HIRSCHThanks for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:40:18

    NNAMDIAlso joining us by telephone is Anne Penketh, Washington program director for the British-American Security Information Council. She's former diplomatic editor at the Independent newspaper in the U.K. Anne Penketh, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:40:31

    MS. ANNE PENKETHHi, you're welcome.

  • 13:40:32

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by telephone, finally, is Susan Glasser, executive editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Susan, good to hear you again.

  • 13:40:39

    MS. SUSAN GLASSERYeah. Thanks for having me.

  • 13:40:40

    NNAMDIMichael, let's start with you. The U.S. government began warning other countries last week that these leaks could jeopardize the lives of Americans abroad and even injure military operations. But you wrote this weekend that some of those cables could actually bolster respect for American diplomatic savvy. How come?

  • 13:41:00

    NNAMDIWell, frankly, because it was fairly low, that is the respect for diplomatic efforts by the U.S. with respect to countries like Iran. And what these cables reveal is a more active effort that some people, including those of us who report on this, realize was occurring. And one example I cite, for example, was the effort to get the Saudis to offer China a deal -- a steady oil supply to wean it from energy independence on Iran in exchange for commitments from Beijing on the sanctions against Iran.

  • 13:41:40

    HIRSCHAnd that, you know, whether exposed or not, it was a pretty savvy piece of diplomatic pressure.

  • 13:41:45

    NNAMDINevertheless, you wrote that the leaks are unlikely to fundamentally disrupt U.S. relationships around the world. Why not?

  • 13:41:53

    HIRSCHBecause I believe -- and I was, I think, careful to say it's not clear what's yet to come. There are more documents to be dumped here. But based on what I saw, at least as revealed by the New York Times, one of the newspapers that was designated by Wikileaks to get the leak, you know, there wasn't a great deal that we didn't know about various diplomatic initiatives.

  • 13:42:21

    HIRSCHAnd while a number of U.S. and their cables were quite indiscreet in describing foreign leaders, again, a lot of it had already been out there in terms of the attitudes towards, for example, Afghan President Mohammad Karzai being not especially reliable, or discontent and frustration with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. So I don't think that there's enough here to really cause a blow-up in a key diplomatic relationship.

  • 13:42:49

    NNAMDILet me see what our callers think. What do you think the diplomatic cables leaked by the website Wikileaks this weekend reveal about American diplomacy and how do you expect they'll affect America's standing in the world? Call us at 800-433-8850 with your point of view. 800-433-8850 or go to our website and make a comment at kojoshow.org.

  • 13:43:10

    NNAMDISusan Glasser, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said at a news conference today that the leaked documents are part of a game of psychological warfare and that Iran's standing in the world will not suffer. What did these leaks tell you about the U.S. relationship with Iran?

  • 13:43:27

    GLASSERWell, in fact, Iran, at least of the documents that have been released so far, is a big seam, I would say, of the coverage. And in particular, I do agree with your other guest that in many ways there's somewhat less than meets the eye in terms of disrupting our major relationships, but with one caveat, which is that many of the Arab leaders who are close to the United States have been walking a very fine line of saying one this publically and saying another thing privately to us.

  • 13:43:55

    GLASSERAnd those are revealed, I think, for the first time in very stark detail in some of these documents. You have the Saudi king begging the Americans to quote/unquote "cut the head off the snake," by which he means the Iranian nuclear program. Many other Arab leaders also are reported in this diplomatic cable to be privately urging the United States to take action that they're not willing to support publically. And I think that's where you could see some of the more specific fallout in relation to the Iran issue.

  • 13:44:26

    NNAMDIAnne Penketh, President Ahmadinejad is quoted as saying regional countries are all friends with each other. Such mischief will have no impact on the relations of countries. What do you think about that statement?

  • 13:44:37

    PENKETHWell, you know, I think you'd expect that kind of bluster from the Iranian president. I think what this shows is that actually every single one of Iran's neighbors are opposed to Iran getting a nuclear weapon and will go to any length to stop him. I mean, it is -- as the other guests have said, it is something that we actually have been aware of, but I think the unity of purpose is something that really should give Iran pause at this point.

  • 13:45:07

    NNAMDIIndeed, Anne Penketh, what did you make of the news broken by these cables that the U.S. believes that Iran has obtained missiles from North Korea?

  • 13:45:14

    PENKETHWell, again, that had been rumored that they had been able to obtain parts to put together a long distance ballistic missile. They've already got missiles which can reach 2,000 kilometers, which would get them to southern Europe. This would be 4,000 kilometers, which, apparently, would help them reach Berlin. But, of course, you know, they're not built yet. We're not there yet. But it is a confirmation of those rumors, yes.

  • 13:45:45

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Anne Penketh. She is the Washington program director for the British-American Security Information Council and former diplomatic editor of the Independent newspaper in the United Kingdom. Our topic is the Wikileaks 250,000 pages of confidential State Department documents released yesterday.

  • 13:46:02

    NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone for this conversation is Susan Glasser, executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine and Michael Hirsch, chief correspondent at National Journal. He's a former senior editor and former editor at Newsweek. Michael, allow me to put this question both to you and Susan Glasser and if Anne Penketh feels like jumping in also.

  • 13:46:21

    NNAMDIWhat does this mean, if anything, for how the United States is going to engage with North Korea moving forward? That's a situation that seems to be getting more complicated every day.

  • 13:46:30

    HIRSCHWell, again, I don't think this is an area where the revelations, such as they are in these cables, is going to make an already very, very dangerous situation any worse. One of the things that those of us who follow this know is that U.S. officials have talked for a long time about the collapse of the North Korean regime, always prematurely. But it's been anticipated and discussed so there's nothing too new to that revelation.

  • 13:47:00

    HIRSCHBut the, you know, the revelation that these Iranian missiles might have been supplied, or at least inspired by North Korean design or what North Korea gave to Tehran, could help to additionally mobilize efforts against North Korea. Right now, you have sort of a sitting on the fence effort by China to convene emergency talks. And so it's one of the areas where I would suggest that the revelations in these cables might actually prove beneficial.

  • 13:47:30

    NNAMDIWhat do you think, Susan Glasser?

  • 13:47:32

    GLASSERWell, you know, in many ways, I was thinking to the analogy -- we've all experienced this at this point, right, where the sort of inappropriate e-mail becomes public or the thing...

  • 13:47:40

    NNAMDISpeak for yourself.

  • 13:47:40

    GLASSER...that you only meant to say privately to friends -- image that times 260,000, right?

  • 13:47:46


  • 13:47:46

    GLASSERSo there -- of course, there's going to be an impact. You are talking about very candid, and in many cases, you know, negative or harsh assessments of people that are diplomats we're required to work with every day, whether it's outright allies, you know, such as Italy, France, for example, or people we're not sure where we position. Look at some of the very critical things that have emerged that American officials have been saying about Russia's leaders, for example.

  • 13:48:11

    GLASSERThere's one document where they call President Dmitry Medvedev Robin to Vladimir Putin's Batman, you know, not exactly the kind of thing that's usual in the realm of diplomacy. The Turks, for example, already a very complicated negotiating situation there that the United States has, there's a memo from the United States Ambassador that says that Turkey today has Rolls Royce ambitions, but only Range Rover capabilities.

  • 13:48:41

    GLASSERYou know, and lots of other even more personal critiques of Silvio Berlusconi, for example, who was basically called an outright mouthpiece of Vladimir Putin and Russian oligarchs.

  • 13:48:53

    NNAMDIAnne Penketh, I get the impression that what you all agree on is that, so far anyway, these leaked documents haven't really told us anything new about the U.S. concern about North Korea and Iran.

  • 13:49:03

    PENKETHWell, in a sense I go further -- and as you say, so far, you know, because we don't know what else is coming down the pike. But in a sense it's actually reassuring because, you know, if you hang around with diplomats, they might be smiling to you, on the other hand, while at the same time, they're stabbing you in the back. It's reassuring because they are sticking to the same talking points in private, whether they're talking to government officials or to journalists or to non-government organizations, you know. It's the same message that's coming across on North Korea and particularly on Iran as we've seen. So I think it's reassuring.

  • 13:49:44

    HIRSCHYeah. I also wanted to say, Kojo...

  • 13:49:45


  • 13:49:46

    HIRSCH...I just think it's, in some ways, just a refreshing reality check. You wouldn't want this to happen every month. But every now and then, particularly when it comes to upgrading security and encryption for the way these kinds of communications are handled -- which is clearly now going to happen.

  • 13:50:02

    HIRSCHAnd while I would agree with what Susan said earlier about the fallout in the Arab world with all the real thoughts and attitudes of these Arab leaders toward intervention against Iran revealed, you know, that could also be healthy, too. I mean, you know, a lot of these Arab countries have really sat on the fence for years about this. And I can tell you, you know, it's very likely that the alarm level in Tehran has gone up today as a result of some of these revelations about just how much everyone from the Saudis and on through these other Arab states are working to contain their nuclear ambitions.

  • 13:50:41

    NNAMDIWe're taking your calls, 800-433-8850. What kind of damage control do you expect the United States will be forced to conduct in the wake of yesterday's newest publication by the website Wikileaks? 800-433-8850. Susan Glasser, the leaks also reveal that American diplomats were ordered, apparently, to engage in low-level spying. What did this reveal to you about the craft -- the trade of American diplomacy, if you will?

  • 13:51:09

    GLASSERWell, you know, I think that is actually so far -- and I caveat that so far because actually very few of the documents out of the total document dump have actually been released so there could be bigger revelations to come. But so far, I think this is one of the major new pieces of information. It was revealed that in addition to conventional information gathering activities, that the U.S. has started asking its diplomats to provide things like frequent flyer numbers and credit card numbers and other things that we might more traditionally associate with spying.

  • 13:51:39

    GLASSERFor example, to certain missions at the United Nations, which again, historically, there's been a pact honored more in the breach than in reality, not to spy at the United Nations. So I think that's surprising to me. And I think there's going to be some real fallout to that. If you -- it's one thing if you think that nice political officer from the United States embassy is very curious about your political party. It's another thing entirely if you think he's going to cad your wallet and look in there to see what your credit card number is.

  • 13:52:09

    NNAMDIAnne Penketh, how do you expect the U.S. is going to change how it does diplomatic business in the future as a result of this?

  • 13:52:15

    PENKETHOh, well, clearly they're already going to be, I would think, you know, be much more careful about what they put in their cables. Although, (word?) said that so much of this stuff is kind of gossip and pretty low level stuff. The thing that Susan was talking about is much more important and much more serious, I think.

  • 13:52:36

    PENKETHAnd I hope that it would be investigated. There was actually a president before, one that the British and the Americans were eavesdropping on, Kofi Annan's telephone conversations when he was secretary general of the United Nations. But, you know, asking for passwords and biometric data on U.N. officials, that's really serious. So -- and, of course, the Americans will be, I expect, trying to find the culprit, you know, who is behind this, whether it's the guy who is already in custody or whether the leakers to Wikileaks are a broader network.

  • 13:53:12

    NNAMDIMichael Hirsch, the business about American diplomats being ordered to engage in low-level spying, what did you take from that?

  • 13:53:19

    HIRSCHYeah. I mean, that is one of the obviously potentially damaging elements to this. Again, an area where I think the game in diplomacy in the way that it's always mixed in with information gathering, espionage is that, you know, people expect you're going to do that. But to have it laid out there like that is going to -- is clearly going to create increased wariness on the part of the (word?) , the counterparts of these diplomats. It could, you know, put a crimp in this very information gathering that Hilary Clinton wanted to happen.

  • 13:53:57

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Tyler in Alexandria, Va. Tyler, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:54:03

    TYLERThank you very much, Kojo, and thanks to your panel. I just had a quick comment. I happen to be physically engaged as a diplomat working on a provincial reconstruction team going abroad, doing what I think are, you know, important works. These documents and these -- the programs that may have been discussed in it can physically affect my security.

  • 13:54:27

    TYLERAnd I hear people talking about things like, well, the documents were just secret and these things. And I'd like your panel to kind of comment on the media's responsibility to determine by themselves whether or not some things have national security risk and I'd like to see if any of them would be willing to explain that to my wife.

  • 13:54:46

    NNAMDITyler -- Tyler -- Tyler, could you tell us what you see as the specific threat to you as a result of the release of these documents, that you will now have suspicion cast on you as being a spy?

  • 13:54:58

    TYLEROh, well, not necessarily that, but just the general suspicion that one could have when working in these activities. You can also appreciate the second order effect that these documents have for all American servicemen and women in the field, similar to the, you know, what I feel was a good exposure after Guantanamo. It does have second order effects that some people don't consider.

  • 13:55:23

    TYLERSo when they say things like, well, we didn't directly identify anyone or the documents were only secret, they didn't have certain activities involved in it, that -- it can raise things to kind of like a critical mass that can, you know, maybe one person's transparency, on the other hand, can be someone's, you know, large problem in their workplace. That's the nature of my call.

  • 13:55:49

    NNAMDITyler, thank you very much for your call and it is my hope and ours that you manage to stay safe. But all of our guests have been editors before so starting with you, Susan Glasser, what do you say to someone like Tyler?

  • 13:56:02

    GLASSERWell, look, I think part of what he's saying is certainly a very genuine concern and it does reflect that we're entering into some unchartered territory in terms of the information age because unfortunately, it's no longer just up to a small handful of editors.

  • 13:56:19

    GLASSERAnd while it's true, for example, on the one hand, that the New York Times reviewed each of the documents that it has posted on its site and I believe they and The Guardian were also giving the State Department an opportunity to comment in advance and to do the traditional journalistic vetting of this, the point is that this hasn't come from the investigative reporting of The Guardian or the New York Times.

  • 13:56:42

    GLASSERBut it represents an entire archive of 260,000 documents that are being put out there. And, you know, the old days when we could sort of say, okay, well, here's how we're going to quote/unquote "control" this information, just simply don't exist.

  • 13:56:58

    NNAMDIMichael Hirsch?

  • 13:56:59

    HIRSCHYeah. I would just say a few things. One, while I don't condone what Wikileaks did or endorse it, just factually they did give the State Department and the government time to go over these documents. The responsible news organizations like the New York Times did go over anything that might reveal operational details or the identity of those involved, specifically because of concerns about personal safety.

  • 13:57:28

    HIRSCHAnd then, finally, going back to the point about, you know, sometimes needing a jolt in the arm like this to rethink your security, I can tell you that that is what is going to happen now diplomatically. The State Department and the government is going to completely rethink who gets what in light of the idea that this Army private apparently, Private Manning, was the chief culprit in leaking all of this stuff. How does a fellow like that get to this, rethinking the need to know concept in terms of simply giving key information...

  • 13:58:07

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Michael Hirsch is chief correspondent at National Journal. Anne Penketh is Washington program director for the British-American Security Information Council, and Susan Glasser is executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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