By Sam Youngman - 11/30/10 02:27 AM EST
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led an administration-wide effort Monday to limit the damage to national security from the leaking of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables.
The documents, published by WikiLeaks, included unvarnished opinions of foreign leaders and sensitive information about foreign policy, including revelations that Arab nations in the Middle East have expressed deep concerns to the U.S. about Iran becoming a nuclear power.
The diplomatic and political embarrassment created a tricky balancing act for the administration, which denounced WikiLeaks but sought to downplay how much damage might have been caused to both U.S. security and prestige.
President Obama did not comment on the controversy during a lengthy press appearance announcing his proposal for a federal worker pay freeze. Instead, while the president avoided even a comment about WikiLeaks, Clinton was charged with reaching out to foreign leaders to assuage their concerns.
Clinton’s work began even before the WikiLeaks documents were revealed on major newspaper websites Sunday.
She said Monday that she had talked to several foreign leaders over the course of the last several days, and has stressed to them that “official foreign policy is not set through these messages, but here in Washington.”
“Our policy is a matter of public record, as reflected in our statements and our actions around the world,” Clinton said in remarks at the State Department.
While some foreign government officials publicly criticized the U.S. for the leaks, Clinton said one of her foreign counterparts told her: “ ‘Don’t worry about it. You should see what we say about you.’
“So I think that this is well-understood in the diplomatic community as part of the give-and-take,” Clinton said. “And I would hope that we will be able to move beyond this and back to the business of working together on behalf of our common goals.”
No one in the administration would confirm the legitimacy or accuracy of the stolen cables, but Clinton said the U.S. “strongly condemns” their release.
At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to specifically comment on any of the disclosures in the cables, but repeatedly called their leaking a criminal act.
He did say that countries “throughout the world” are worried about Iran’s nuclear program.
Gibbs said Obama was “not pleased” when he learned of the leaks last week. Gibbs’s refusal to describe Obama as outraged or furious underscored the administration’s attempts to tamp down the potential damage the leaks could cause.
Since taking office, Obama has made forging new relationships with foreign leaders and restoring America’s standing in the international community some of his most important foreign policy priorities.
“I am confident that the partnerships that the Obama administration has worked so hard to build will withstand this challenge,” Clinton said. “The president and I have made these partnerships a priority, and we are proud of the progress that they have helped achieve, and they will remain at the center of our efforts.”
Republicans responded to the most recent leaks with outrage, almost universally calling for the leaker or leakers to be treated as traitors to the U.S.
“It is critical that the perpetrator who betrayed his country be brought to justice for this deliberate treason that jeopardizes our national security,” said Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who is retiring at the end of this Congress.
Bond called for the committee to hear a full accounting of the “intelligence and diplomatic debacle and about what steps are being taken to ensure that a security breach of this magnitude never happens again.”
The White House said it is considering all options to bring those responsible for the leaks to justice, while the administration continued to outline steps it has taken to prevent future leaks.
This is the third massive batch of documents that WikiLeaks has posted online. The first two collections were sensitive documents related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
“Obviously, there is an ongoing criminal investigation about the stealing of and the dissemination of sensitive and classified information,” Gibbs said. “Secondly, I know the administration … we are looking at a whole host of things, and I wouldn’t rule anything out.”
Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday morning that his department would prosecute anyone found to be involved in the leaks.
Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructed all federal agencies to clamp down on classified information.
“Any failure by agencies to safeguard classified information pursuant to relevant laws … is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Jack Lew, the director of the OMB, wrote in a memo posted Monday morning on the office’s website.
Lew’s memo calls for each agency that handles classified information to establish “a security assessment team consisting of counterintelligence, security and information assurance experts to review the agency’s implementation of procedures for safeguarding classified information against improper disclosures.”
Lew said OMB, the Information Security Oversight Office and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will assist agencies in their review of how to better protect classified information.
Vicki Needham contributed to this report.