The State Department is settling in for a rough period, putting forth a longer-term strategy for dealing with the damage done by the ongoing WikiLeaks disclosures and starting the repair work on hundreds of relationships. The timing of the diplomatic embarrassment comes just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling around the globe.
"This has been a bad week for American diplomacy," a senior administration official lamented on a Wednesday evening conference call about the WikiLeaks crisis. In response to what the official called "significant damage" to American diplomatic effort abroad, the State Department has reached out to 186 countries on the issue, "basically every country that takes our calls," the official said.
The official emphasized that if there's any American leader with the skills to handle such a crisis, it's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her stints as first lady and senator, her personal reputation, and her close relationships have given her the experience and skills needed to do what's necessary to start putting the pieces back together, the official said.
Meanwhile, Clinton was in Kazakhstan Wednesday for the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In remarks alongside Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev, Clinton commented on her damage-control activities.
"I anticipate that there will be a lot of questions that people have every right and reason to ask, and we stand ready to discuss them at any time with our counterparts around the world," she said.
Clinton's biggest damage-control effort is coming Friday, when she travels to Bahrain to deliver the opening address at the Manama Security Dialogue, put on by the Institute for International and Strategic Studies. There she could come face to face with leaders of several countries portrayed harshly in the cables, including Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and many more. Your humble Cable guy will be in Manama covering the event. (More on that later).
Back in Washington, the senior administration official said that the State Department had severed its computers from the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) in the wake of the disclosures as part of an overall government review of information-security procedures. SIPRNet is the interagency network for sharing classified information between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon.
In what some might see as intramural sniping, this senior official argued that the State Department's policies had actually been "vindicated" by the WikiLeaks crisis because department personnel have always been prevented from downloading secret materials from the State Department's classified networks, except in specific and very limited circumstances.
The 250,000 stolen diplomatic cables given to WikiLeaks are widely thought to have come from Pfc. Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst with the 10th Mountain Division who allegedly downloaded the documents from a SIPRNet terminal in Iraq. People familiar with the U.S. government's response tell us that at least in some circumstances, the State Department's systems were disconnected from the Defense Department systems even before the WikiLeaks cables starting seeping out Nov. 28. For example, the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan and Pakistan moved to separate themselves from the rest of the secret government network about a week prior, two senior level sources confirms.
Foreign leaders have downplayed the revelations in the cables, but the senior official admitted that the WikiLeaks crisis has caused "significant damage" to American diplomatic efforts abroad and that the damage-control effort will play out over a long period of time.
"We're going to have to do a lot of work to rebuild people's trust," the official said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.