WASHINGTON // US diplomats were bracing themselves last night to respond to the public revelation of their confidential dealings with foreign officials and governments contained in 250,000 official documents that have been disclosed by the online whistleblower group WikiLeaks, some of which were last night posted on The New York Times website
The cables, as to be expected for such a massive disclosure, cover a wide range of topics, including the bargaining to empty Guantanamo Bay prison, suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government and an alleged global computer hacking effort by the Chinese government.
Some of the documents leaked to The New York Times chronicle the concerns of Arab states about the growing power of Iran and their calls on the United States to deal with Tehran as a nuclear threat.
Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa tells the Americans that the Iranian nuclear programme "must be stopped," according to one cable quoted by The Times. "The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it."
Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, said topics covered in the documents were wide-ranging and significant.
"The material ... covers essentially every major issue in every country in the world," he told a conference of investigative journalists in Jordan from an unidentified location.
Mr Assange told the reporters he was speaking to them by video link because "Jordan's not the best place to be with the CIA on your tail".
The State Department late on Saturday made public a letter it had sent to Mr Assange and an attorney representing the group warning that publication of the documents could endanger the lives of "countless innocent individuals", from journalists to soldiers, and "place at risk cooperation with countries" as well as "on-going military operations".
The letter, signed by Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser, warned Mr Assange that if the documents were obtained from US officials without proper authorisation, merely holding the documents placed him and WikiLeaks in violation of US law. Mr Koh urged the group to return the documents and destroy any copies.
The State Department also rejected any negotiations with WikiLeaks aimed at ascertaining who might be placed in danger as a result of the document disclosure.
"In your letter, you say you want - consistent with your goal of 'maximum disclosure' - information regarding individuals who may be 'at significant risk of harm' because of your actions," Mr Koh wrote.
"Despite your stated desire to protect those lives, you have done the opposite and endangered the lives of countless individuals."
Officials in Washington are meanwhile scrambling to contain the damage from the documents.
In order to mitigate the fallout of the release of the documents, State Department officials have reportedly been in contact with their counterparts in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Great Britain, France and Germany to indicate what the documents are likely to contain.
There was real concern in Washington that revelations in the documents could seriously hamper the ability of diplomats around the world to be candid in their future assessments regarding their postings.
Last week, Elizabeth King, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for administrative affairs, wrote to the Senate and House armed services committees, the US congressional defence panels, to warn that publicly divulging the documents could touch on "an enormous range" of sensitive foreign policy issues and potentially "wreak havoc".
US officials have repeatedly denounced WikiLeaks' releases as a danger to national security.