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How 250,000 US embassy cables were leaked

An innocuous-looking memory stick, no longer than a couple of fingernails, came into the hands of a Guardian reporter earlier this year. The device is so small it will hang easily on a keyring. But its contents will send shockwaves through the world's chancelleries and deliver what one official described as "an epic blow" to US diplomacy.

The 1.6 gigabytes of text files on the memory stick ran to millions of words: the contents of more than 250,000 leaked state department cables, sent from, or to, US embassies around the world.

What will emerge in the days and weeks ahead is an unprecedented picture of secret diplomacy as conducted by the planet's sole superpower. There are 251,287 dispatches in all, from more than 250 US embassies and consulates. They reveal how the US deals with both its allies and its enemies – negotiating, pressuring and sometimes brusquely denigrating foreign leaders, all behind the firewalls of ciphers and secrecy classifications that diplomats assume to be secure. The leaked cables range up to the "SECRET NOFORN" level, which means they are meant never to be shown to non-US citizens.

As well as conventional political analyses, some of the cables contain detailed accounts of corruption by foreign regimes, as well as intelligence on undercover arms shipments, human trafficking and sanction-busting efforts by would-be nuclear states such as Iran and Libya. Some are based on interviews with local sources while others are general impressions and briefings written for top state department visitors who may be unfamiliar with local nuances.

Intended to be read by officials in Washington up to the level of the secretary of state, the cables are generally drafted by the ambassador or subordinates. Although their contents are often startling and troubling, the cables are unlikely to gratify conspiracy theorists. They do not contain evidence of assassination plots, CIA bribery or such criminal enterprises as the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan years, when anti-Nicaraguan guerrillas were covertly financed.

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