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WikiLeaks release may affect future relations

Group publishes cables, generating human rights, transparency concerns

The nonprofit organization WikiLeaks published the first of a large cache of confidential communications between the United States State Department and embassies in more than 250 foreign countries last Sunday. Government officials have condemned the release as a threat to national security while supporters of the website - which describes itself as a human rights organization - argued for greater government transparency. The information contained in the communications deals with issues ranging from foreign policy in Iran to the private habits of Libya's leader, Muammar al-Qadhafi.

Several University professors, many of whom have spent time working in U.S. foreign relations, condemned the website or downplayed the impact of its release.

"Right now it doesn't offer any big surprises," said William Quandt, vice provost for international affairs and former National Security Council staff member. But he added that people are still filtering the rush of information and that it could potentially change the tenor of future diplomatic communications.

Parsing through the papers\nAlthough the cables do not appear to contain any shocking information about world diplomatic relations, Quandt said they still bring attention to current situations abroad, especially in the Middle East, by giving media a chance to focus on those issues.

Several major publications, including The New York Times and The Guardian, were given access to some of the diplomatic cables before they were posted to the WikiLeaks website.

Sunday's release of 220 documents is only a small fraction of more than 250,000 WikiLeaks has promised to make public in the upcoming weeks. Still, it is unclear how much new information will be uncovered.

"The average guy is going to have trouble understanding a lot of it," Law Prof. Robert Turner said, explaining that because large publications have reporters in countries around the world - and thus access to relevant local information - they are much more equipped to summarize the issues discussed in the cables.

Even so, information about factual events is touched by the officials writing the cables before the reporters ever lay eyes on them, making all reports subject to at least nominal suspicion. As a result, Quandt said the most important cables discuss U.S. foreign policy in Iran, as they show that several Middle Eastern countries are concerned about Iran's ability to construct nuclear weapons and hope the United States will take action against Iran.

The most extreme voice pushing for such action, Quandt said, came from Saudi Arabia's leader Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz who, according to one cable, hoped the United States would attack Iran.

Another notable issue is that U.S. diplomats were instructed to collect information on foreign leaders, Quandt said. Other situations discussed in the cables include South Korea's push for a unified country and corruption within the Afghan government.\n\nClassified information\nQuandt said a notable absence in the leaked cables were ones deemed "top secret." Government documents without this classification do not usually contain information that will likely put many lives at risk or do serious diplomatic damage, he explained.

"There was always an understanding that some classified information might go public, so much of it ends up being relatively routine information," he said.

He also questioned whether the leak might distance foreign leaders and make future negotiations more difficult.

Americans need some perspective, he said. "What will this have changed six months from now? Will our relations with other countries be harmed? Will things go differently then they might have otherwise? Maybe, but not likely."

Even the most reported information is not particularly surprising - leaders of vulnerable countries wish the United States would address Iran, and because their citizens probably are not as concerned, they might be somewhat reluctant to make those requests publicly.

But Quandt also left open the possibility that new information would emerge from the cables as more people gained access to them. He said, for example, the leak included more than a thousand cables from the Algerian embassy, which few people have yet had time to cover.

Turner said even if new information does not emerge, the banal nature of the leak is likely misleading.

"There's a lot of sensitive information in there that doesn't appear sensitive to most people," he said. "This isn't something for amateurs to play around with; real lives could be in danger because of [the leak.]"

Having worked in both national security and foreign relations, Turner said a cable that seems relatively harmless could easily provide a piece of information that, when combined with information from other sources, gives an enemy agent the identity or location of an American soldier, agent or communications worker.

Law Prof. John Moore, a former international law counselor for the State Department, agreed that the release would be a bombshell for the future of U.S. foreign policy because other nations would be less likely to trust the United States with sensitive information, thus harming American intelligence gathering.

"We will now have less candid discussions with other countries. We'll have fewer opportunities to negotiate. Cables will always have to be suspect," he said.

Although he found the WikiLeaks decision to release the cables inexcusable, Turner thought publications such as The New York Times were responsible for conveying the basic information to the public while working to ensure that it did not expose Americans to unnecessary danger. The Times reported that it forwarded documents to the Obama administration for review.

But History Prof. Philip Zelikow, who also was a former counselor for the State Department, expressed anger about the controversy surrounding media coverage of the leaks.

"With an indiscriminate cross-section of its cables now released, picked over by at least eight newspapers, none so far have turned up a smidgen of wrongdoing by the United States government," he said.

Nevertheless, as the diplomatic world becomes increasingly dependent on computers to store sensitive files, the world is faced with a century-old question with a modern complexity: How well should the government be able to hide its actions - as documented in either cabinet or computer files - from citizens for which it is supposed to work?

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