The huge trove of documents released today by the whistle-blowing Website WikiLeaks reads like something out of a spy novel and lifts the curtain on the secret communications between Washington and U.S. diplomats stationed around the world.
The Website says it will eventually release more than 250,000 documents in all, many of them confidential messages containing candid, often embarrassing observations about foreign leaders.
Some of the most fascinating documents are about Iran, depicting Arab governments practically begging the United States to prevent the Iranian government from getting nuclear weapons.
"That program must be stopped," Bahrain's King tells Gen. David Petraeus in November 2009 according to one of the documents. "The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it."
The foreign minister of the United Arab Emerites says "Ahmadinejad is Hitler" and tells a top State Department official "the threat from al-Qa'ida would be minor if Iran has nukes," according to another.
In these private dispatches posted online today by the New York Times, The Guardian and Le Monde ahead of a full release over the next several days on the WikiLeaks site, several Arab governments take a line virtually identical to Israel's.
In another meeting with Petraeus, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. describes King Abdullah urging the U.S. to attack Iran and saying, the "use of military pressure against Iran should not be ruled out," another document says.
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates is quoted telling France's defense minister in February that an an attack on Iran "would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker."
Many of the documents are simply embarassing.
For example, in the effort to close the detention center at Guantanamo, the State Department plays what the New York Times calls "Let's Make a Deal," offering foreign government rewards for agreeing take in prisoners.
Slovenia was told it if it wants to get a meeting with President Obama, it needs to take a prisoner, according to one of the documents, and according to another, the island nation of Kiribati was offered millions of dollars in incentives to accept a group of prisoners.
Libyan leader Muhammar Qadaffi's visit to New York last year is the subject of several documents detailing his strange behavior, including his relationship with "a voluptuous blonde" described as "his senior Ukrainian nurse" who is always by his side.
One of the most damaging documents describes a meeting in January between Petraeus and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, where the United States has conducted several secret drone attacks on suspected al Qaeda targets.
"We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh tells Petraeus, according to one of the documents. The cable says another Yemeni official then "joked that he had just 'lied' by telling parliament" that Yemeni forces carried out the attack.
U.S. officials have condemned the leak as outrageous and dangerous. They also say they are taking steps to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again.
Under changes already implemented, for example, it is now impossible for a single person to take classified information off a government computer.
The White House said today the release of the sensitive U.S. government information could not only embarrass the United States and other governments, but could put Americans and human rights activists around the world at risk.
"By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals," the White House said in a statement released today. "We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information."
The government had been bracing for the worldwide fallout feared from the release for days, preemptively warning allies in the hope of lessening the blow after the classified documents went public.
Some of the documents were leaked to The New York Times, The Guardian in the UK and France's Le Monde, in advance of a full posting on the WikiLeaks site.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle condemned WikiLeaks' decision to release the material.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it "a reckless action" that will not only complicate U.S. diplomatic efforts, but could put people's lives at risk.
"This is not an academic exercise about freedom of information and it is not akin to the release of the Pentagon Papers, which involved an analysis aimed at saving American lives and exposing government deception," he said.
"Instead, these sensitive cables contain candid assessments and analysis of ongoing matters and they should remain confidential to protect the ability of the government to conduct lawful business with the private candor that's vital to effective diplomacy," he said.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the incoming Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Wikileaks is "undermining American foreign policy" as America's allies "are forced to question whether the United States can keep secrets" and diplomats are forced to "try and patch foreign relations strained by this illegal leak."
It is an embarrassment to the Obma administration, he said.
"Wikileaks clearly is determined to undermine U.S. national security and damage our foreign relations," he said. "The disclosure of thousands of potentially classified cables and other documents is an embarrassment to the Obama administration and represents a critical failure by the Pentagon and intelligence community to protect sensitive national security information."
WikiLeaks has said the release would be seven times the size of its most recent leak, in October, which contained about 400,000 Pentagon documents about the war in Iraq. WikiLeaks also published roughly 70,000 documents in July about the war in Afghanistan.
Senior U.S. officials have warned that the WikiLeaks documents posted today would be considerably more damaging than the two previous WikiLeaks document dumps.
"This is outrageous and dangerous," a senior U.S. official told ABC News. "This puts at risk the ability of the United States to conduct foreign policy. Period. End of paragraph."
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also weighed in Friday, telling CNN he hoped these kinds of leaks will eventually be plugged.
"I would hope that those who are responsible for this would, at some point in time, think about the responsibility that they have for lives that they're exposing and the potential that's there and stop leaking this information," Adm. Mike Mullen said in an interview that aired today.
The big worry among U.S. authorities was that the documents would reveal names and detailed discussions with individuals who expected that their conversations with U.S. officials would be kept confidential. In the case of intelligence sources and dissidents in oppressive countries, this could put lives of U.S. sources at risk, authorities say.
"It's very worrisome. We don't want to see people taken out and shot on the streets of Kabul or Baghdad because they've worked with the United States," said Michael O'Hanlon, an expert on defense policy with the Brookings Institution.
Bradley Manning Believed to Be Source of New Information
As with the previous WikiLeaks documents, the source this time is believed to be Army Intelligence Spc. Bradley Manning, who was arrested for leaking the classified information in July.
The 22-year-old Army specialist had access to hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables through military computers, thanks to intelligence changes put in place after the 9/11 attacks. Those changes intended to improve intelligence sharing among different agencies and departments.
In an effort to limit the damage, the administration is working with news organizations to whom WikiLeaks has given the documents to redact sensitive names, but there is no guarantee that WikiLeaks won't simply publish unredacted documents.
The U.S. government has also already started to notify allies and U.S. lawmakers about potentially damaging information, which it said could endanger lives and harm national security.
"We are in touch with our posts around the world. They have begun the process of notifying governments that the release of documents is possible in the near future," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters at a press briefing Wednesday.
U.K. officials confirmed Friday that U.S. authorities had already briefed them about the possible WikiLeaks release, and the U.S. government had also reportedly reached out to Israel, Australia and Canada, among other countries.
State Dept: Leak 'Could Create Tension'
"This back and forth between government, the government of the United States and governments around the world, it is diplomacy in action," Crowley said. "These revelations are harmful to the United States and our interest. They are going to create tension between our diplomats and our friends around the world."
On its Twitter page in recent days, WikiLeaks appeared to be taunting U.S. authorities.
"The Pentagon is hyperventilating again over fears of being held to account," the organization wrote on Nov. 23.
"Should WikiLeaks expose the world's secret diplomatic backroom dealings? Put it to the vote!" it posted in another tweet Thursday, providing a link to an online poll.
U.S. Ambassador Calls WikiLeaks 'Absolutely Awful,' Could Harm U.S. Efforts
In Baghdad Friday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey confirmed that the WikiLeaks documents could do serious harm to U.S. diplomatic efforts.
"WikiLeaks are an absolutely awful impediment to my business, which is to be able to have discussions in confidence with people," Jeffrey told reporters at a briefing, according to news agency AFP. "I do not understand the motivation for releasing these documents. They will not help. They will simply hurt our ability to do our work here."