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State Department Tried To Dissuade WikiLeaks From Posting U.S. Documents

Apr 12, 2019

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The State Department was forced into damage control when WikiLeaks published thousands of diplomatic cables back in 2010. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it an attack on U.S. foreign policy and international alliances. Now that Julian Assange is facing charges related to that leak, we wondered whether it left a lasting impact on U.S. diplomacy. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

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Retired diplomat Barbara Leaf was in Rome reading The New York Times on an unclassified computer on the day in 2010 when the WikiLeaks cables hit the news. She was shocked to see what's called a NODIS, or no distribution cable, which are normally very restrictive.

BARBARA LEAF: Then I was like, oh, my God. You know? I got to turn this thing off, you know? It was - but beyond the comic moment which, literally, I thought, did I just give myself a security violation by looking at a NODIS cable on an un-class terminal, it wreaked havoc. These cables wreaked havoc.

KELEMEN: That was especially true at her next assignment, in Iraq, where some embassy contacts had been harassed and threatened because they were named in diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. She says she and her colleagues became far more judicious in what they wrote in those official reports.

LEAF: Some people, I would not name. Yes. Absolutely. I would not put names in cables because of that. Government officials are generally different. But when you're talking to some, you know, average citizen, or somebody who is willing to talk candidly about policies or activities of their government that they know, you know, it's - you know, it's a third-rail topic, or what have you, I didn't put their names in cables forever after.

KELEMEN: Diplomats write these cables to give Washington policymakers a sense of what's happening in the country where they serve. They used to be accessible even to military officers in the field until Chelsea Manning helped WikiLeaks gain access to them. Now access is even more limited. And that's a problem, says Mary Thompson-Jones, another former career diplomat who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College.

MARY THOMPSON-JONES: Not enough people read the cables. That was true then and that's true now. The only person that you're guaranteed is going to read your cable is the poor desk officer who's handling everything that has to do with the country to which you've been assigned.

KELEMEN: She downplays the lasting impact of WikiLeaks on the State Department, saying Julian Assange's moment has come and gone.

THOMPSON-JONES: Technology has moved at lightning speed since then. Every embassy has Facebook, it has social media. Ambassadors get out, and they're tweeting about things. So we're in a different era already than we were nine years ago.

KELEMEN: Looking back, some diplomats joke that there was an upside to the scandal. The world got to see what diplomats do and find out that some are pretty colorful writers. The downside was that government officials who didn't like how they were described gave U.S. diplomats the cold shoulder and didn't let them take notes in meetings. That lasted for a while, says Barbara Leaf, who was the ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until she retired last year.

LEAF: There was an exquisite agony that these governments, friendly governments, felt in talking to us for a very long time. I got out to UAE four years after this, and they were still gun shy about all of this. So, you know, it is the toxic gift that keeps on giving.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it stands by previous assessments that the WikiLeaks disclosures were harmful and put lives and careers at risk. A former spokesman says the impact was serious but admittedly hard to quantify. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.