U.S. in diplomatic tailspin as dirty linen spills globally

WASHINGTON—From setback after setback in the war on terror to deep anxieties over containing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons in peaceful hands, the long-awaited WikiLeaks files show the United States as a superpower secretly struggling to maintain its hold on an increasingly chaotic world.

The unprecedented WikiLeaks disclosures — launched Sunday afternoon amid grim warnings from the White House, with more baskets of diplomatic dirty laundry expected to dump daily all this week — add up to some three million raw, often unflattering snapshots of the world and its troubles through American eyes.

The leaks — unveiled in a single coordinated splash by self-proclaimed whistleblower organization WikiLeaks and five news groups, including the New York Times and The Guardian — also brought into high relief America’s struggles to exercise global influence.

The first wave of reports describes U.S. diplomatic setbacks including a failed attempt to block Syria from shipping arms to the militants of Hezbollah, curb terror funding in Qatar and contain Chinese attempts to hack U.S. computers. Some of those accounts and more are to be detailed as the week unfolds with further revelations each day.

Reaction in Washington was fast and furious, with the White House denouncing the disclosures as “reckless and dangerous” and prominent congressional leaders calling for an immediate effort to prosecute the whistleblowers.

Canadian chimed in with a statement from Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon that branded the leaks “irresponsible, deplorable” and a potential threat to national security.

But Canada was otherwise absent in the torrent of embarrassment — for now, at least.

Despite forewarnings from Washington, no details have yet emerged on the estimated 2,648 mentions of Canada in the leaked documents. Nearly 2,000 of those files are cables originating from the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. Of those, 95 are designated “secret” and 624 designated “confidential” — any one of which has the potential to redden faces in Ottawa once they become accessible.

And just as the documents span the globe, reaction elsewhere was all over the map. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called the embassy cables “the September 11th of world diplomacy.”

The British Foreign Office, like Canada’s, was more muted. But in denouncing cables that later this week are expected to present unflattering U.S. descriptions of key British leaders, the U.K.’s statement stressed, “We have a very strong relationship with the U.S. government. That will continue.”

Some of the diplomatic embarrassment cuts to the heart of Washington, including a memo from February detailing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s order for U.S. diplomats to essential spy on their United Nations counterparts.

And it extends as far as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan, in field reports on the unseen diplomatic arm-twisting that accompanies the U.S. war on terror.

The New York Times, The Guardian and Le Monde of France all acknowledged using precautionary editorial judgment, withholding especially sensitive documents deemed a risk to individuals or national security.

The German magazine Der Speigel, another of WikiLeaks partners, which dedicated a team of 50 reporters on a multi-week project scouring its advance copies of the documents, described their overall heft as a portrait of a superpower fraught with doubts.

“Do they really show a U.S. which has the world on a leash?” Der Spiegel wrote in an analytical assessment of its findings.

“In sum, probably not. In the major crisis regions, an image emerges of a superpower that can no longer truly be certain of its allies — like in Pakistan, where the Americans are consumed by fear that the unstable nuclear power could become precisely the place where terrorists obtain dangerous nuclear material.”

Just as its media partners begin to publish online, WikiLeaks’ online website suffered a temporary outage, which the organization attributed to a denial-of-service attack by unknown hackers seeking to prevent the disclosures. But the site resumed service later Sunday afternoon, with fresh postings of hundreds of secret cables.

The disclosures also sparked a frenzy of online commentary, as curiosity-seekers traded social networking tips on how best to drill down into the emerging documents. A flurry of remarks on Twitter gleefully compared the revelations to a “body-scan” and “full-body pat down” of the U.S. government.

But the WikiLeaks juggernaut also sparked anger beyond the diplomatic sphere as Americans began to take stock. One prominent critic, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, denounced and distanced himself from WikiLeaks, calling the organization “enemies of the U.S. — not just the government, but the people.”

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