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Administration considers criminal charges against WikiLeaks

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration moved yesterday to contain potential damage to national security from the WikiLeaks release of tens of thousands of sensitive U.S. diplomatic documents and said it might take criminal action against the whistle-blowing website.

The White House directed a government-wide review of guidelines for handling classified information, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered tighter safeguards for diplomatic communications. Meanwhile, the CIA was assessing the harm done to U.S. intelligence operations.

“This is a serious violation of the law,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “This is a serious threat to individuals that both carry out and assist our foreign policy.”

Attorney General Eric Holder said there was “an active, ongoing criminal investigation,” and he indicated that foreigners associated with WikiLeaks, including its Australian founder, Julian Assange, could be targeted.

“Let me be very clear. It’s not saber-rattling. To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law . . . they will be held responsible. They will be held accountable,” Holder said. “To the extent that there are gaps in our laws, we will move to close those gaps, which is not to say that anybody at this point, because of their citizenship or residence, is not a target or a subject of an investigation that is ongoing.”

Clinton said the release of the cables was “not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community, the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.”

At the same time, senior administration officials began moderating their assessment of the harm done by the leaked documents, the first batch of which was released Sunday. While lives could be at risk and ties with some countries hurt, they said, relationships with key governments will weather the fallout.

“I am confident that the partnerships that the Obama administration has worked so hard to build will withstand this challenge,” Clinton said. She took pains at a news conference not to confirm the authenticity of the materials, calling them “alleged cables.”

Clinton said she ordered “new security safeguards” to protect State Department information carried on Defense Department computer systems “and elsewhere . . . so that this kind of breach cannot and does not happen ever again.”

CIA officials, meanwhile, pored over the cables “to assess the extent of any intelligence concerns,” said a senior intelligence official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The White House released a letter sent to every U.S. department and agency by Jacob J. Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, ordering each “to establish a security assessment team … to review the … implementation of procedures for safeguarding classified information against improper disclosures.”

Clinton used her first public comments on the leaks to justify the administration’s preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program. The views of Arab and European leaders detailed in the cables showed the extent to which they share the fear that Tehran is developing weapons, she said.

“The comments that are being reported on, allegedly, from the cables, confirm the fact that Iran poses a very serious threat in the eyes of many of her neighbors and a serious concern far beyond the (Middle East) region,” she said. “That is why the international community came together to pass the strongest possible sanctions against Iran.”

The first batch of cables appeared to contain no major bombshells. But they did reveal embarrassing portraits of international leaders by American diplomats, U.S. intelligence information, the confidential views of human rights activists, journalists and opposition figures, and stark differences between public pronouncements by American and foreign officials and their private positions.

One example of that disparity came in a cable that outlined private U.S. concerns over Pakistan’s nuclear program, which administration and American military officials have repeatedly said they think is secure.

The cable, from former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson, discussed an unsuccessful U.S. effort to remove highly enriched uranium, which is used as nuclear weapons fuel, from a Pakistani research reactor because of fears that it could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

Pakistan refused to surrender the material.

The WikiLeaks documents will complicate Pakistani relations with Saudi Arabia, with Saudi King Abdullah quoted commenting about Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s alleged corruption.

“When the head is rotten, it affects the whole body,” Abdullah was quoted as saying of the Pakistani leader.

WikiLeaks on Sunday released the first batch of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, 11,000 of which were classified secret, in coordination with The New York Times and four European news publications that received access to them in advance.

New batches of documents were to be made public throughout the week.

WikiLeaks gave The New York Times and two of the European publications thousands of U.S. military reports from Iraq and Afghanistan that were released earlier this year.

The online whistle-blowing site, which publishes restricted government documents and other materials, is alleged to have received the cables from an Army intelligence analyst with access to a Pentagon-run computer system that carries defense and diplomatic documents classified up to secret.


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