US forced to shake up embassies around the world after WikiLeaks revelations

Guy Adams,Kim Sengupta
Monday 06 December 2010 01:00 GMT

Battered by a scandal which seems to provide a fresh wave of embarrassment with each passing day, the US government is being forced to undertake a major reshuffle of the embassy staff, military personnel and intelligence operatives whose work has been laid bare by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

The Obama administration was yesterday facing a crisis in its diplomatic service, amid growing evidence that the ongoing publication of a tranche of supposedly-confidential communiqués will make normal work difficult, if not dangerous, for important State Department employees across the world.

A mere 1,100 of the roughly 250,000 secret documents obtained by the website have so far been published, leading to fears that the unhelpful revelations will continue for months to come, destabilising US relations with almost all of its key allies and inflaming tensions with already-hostile governments in the Middle East and beyond. "In the short run, we're almost out of business," a senior US diplomat told the Reuters news agency, saying it could take five years to rebuild trust. "It is really, really bad. I cannot exaggerate it. In all honesty, nobody wants to talk to us ... Some people still have to, particularly (in) government but ... they are already asking us things like, 'Are you going to write about this?'"

The Pentagon, the CIA and the State Department are reported to be identifying which members of staff have been named as the authors of the most unhelpful memos to have been published by WikiLeaks. They will need to be removed from what are among America's most strategically-important postings.

Among those whose private thoughts have been embarrassingly revealed is Gene Cretz, the US ambassador to Libya who wrote a now-notorious cable to Washington in 2009 noting that that the country's leader Muammar Gaddafi never travels without his "voluptuous blonde" Ukranian nurse.

America's current envoy to the United Nations has also been criticised following the revelation that Hillary Clinton instructed them to procure credit card and frequent flyer numbers, mobile phone numbers, email addresses, passwords and other data from foreign diplomats and top UN officials, including the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The difficulty regarding the future of America's diplomatic service is the fact that the authors of many of the most important emails in the WikiLeaks tranche are among their most-experienced senior staff, and will therefore be tough, if not impossible, to replace. None of the countries that were affected by the WikiLeaks cables had requested the withdrawal of any American diplomatic staff.

"That's another part of the tragedy of this," a senior US national-security official told The Daily Beast website, which yesterday detailed the extent of the crisis on the ground and claimed that the reassignment of affected diplomats had already been planned and would take place in the coming months.

"We're going to have to pull out some of our best people – the diplomats who best represented the United States and were the most thoughtful in their analysis – because they dared to report back the truth about the nations in which they serve."

Among the foreign governments to have already expressed outrage about the contents of some of the files are those of supposed allies like France, Italy and Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to sue the former US Ambassador Eric Edelman over a memo he wrote suggesting that Erdogan had hidden wealth in Swiss bank accounts.

Old enemies of the US are also upset. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was described in one memo as playing Robin to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Batman. Cuba and Venezuela were branded an "Axis of Mischief" in a document released at the weekend.

When the first cables were made public, the White House condemned the release saying it "put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the US for assistance in promoting democracy and open government".

Although there have yet to be formal moves to oust the diplomats responsible for the most awkward memos so far revealed, foreign governments are expected to soon begin "PNG-ing" US diplomats, a practice which involves demanding the removal of an official by branding them "persona non grata".

"We think it's only a matter of time, though," one State Department official told The Daily Beast. Diplomatic sources told The Independent that there no immediate plans to move staff because that would suggest they had done something wrong and damage confidence.

Tensions with Arab states

The latest leaked memos reveal that Hillary Clinton criticised the Saudi government, saying the country was the world's largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups but that its politicians were reluctant to stem the flow of money. In the memo, dated December 2009, she told US diplomats that "Riyadh has taken only limited action" to interrupt the flow of money to the Taliban and groups launching attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. She added that Hamas raised millions in Saudi, often from Hajj and Ramadan pilgrims. The note also highlighted Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE as sources of militant money and singled Qatar out as "the worst in the region" for not co-operating with Washington.

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