The 10 most important WikiLeaks revelations

From Iran to Yemen to Israel to North Korea to the U.N. -- what the leaked documents tell us about the world

Published November 29, 2010 4:13PM (EST)

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama

The AP has concluded that there is nothing "particularly explosive" so far in the archive of State Department cables that has begun to be released by WikiLeaks. That assertion is debatable in itself. But anyone who takes time to browse through the documents will find both fascinating and solidly new and newsworthy information about U.S. foreign policy and international relations.

WikiLeaks says the documents will be released in stages "over the next few months," so much of what we know now comes through the filter of the handful of media organizations who had access to the full archives. Only a few hundred cables have been released. Here are the top 10 revelations so far:

  • Diplomats as spies: As part of an intelligence gathering effort, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009 ordered diplomats overseas and at the U.N. to collect personal information on foreign officials including credit card and frequent flier numbers and biometric information. Read that cable here, and the New York Times' writeup here. While this may not be shocking to foreign policy wonks, it is certainly embarrassing for the United States and calls into question how much -- and how frequently -- the role of diplomat and spy has been blurred.
  • Secret war in Yemen: The Obama administration has secretly launched missile attacks on suspected terrorists in Yemen, with the Yemeni government taking responsibility and consistently lying about it. While the attacks have drawn relatively little public attention, dozens of civilians along with some suspected terrorists have reportedly been killed. Salon's account of the Yemen revelation is here. The January 2010 cable describing a meeting between Yemen's president and Gen. David Petraeus is here.
  • Iran and North Korea: American intelligence believes Iran has received 19 missiles from North Korea with a range up to 2,000 miles, making them the longest-range missiles in the Iranian arsenal. The Times' story on the missiles is here. The Times says it did not publish the cable at the request of the Obama administration. It has not been posted by WikiLeaks.
  • Gates skeptical on Iran attack: Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, in a meeting with his French counterpart in February of this year, said that "he believed a conventional strike by any nation would only delay Iranian plans by one to three years, while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker." That cable is here
  • Saudis want U.S. to bomb Iran: Several Arab leaders have privately urged the U.S. to launch an attack on Iran to stall or stop its nuclear program. Most memorably, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is reported to have "told you [the U.S.] to cut off the head of the snake," according to a Saudi diplomat . That cable is here. And here is the Guardian's write-up.
  • Israel bluffing on Iran threats? The government of Israel, which has been publicly vocal about the possibility of launching airstrikes against Iran's nuclear program, was not considering such an attack, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told his Russian counterpart on a trip to Moscow in June 2009. The cable describing Lieberman's trip to Russia is here. A story on the cable from the Israeli press is here
  • Fears of uranium in Pakistan: The U.S. has since 2007 tried to get enriched uranium at a Pakistani nuclear reactor out of that country, fearing that the uranium could fall into unfriendly hands and be used to make a bomb. The effort has been unsuccessful. The Times' story on this is here. The cable has not been published.
  • Fatah had warning of Gaza invasion? Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told an American congressional delegation that Israel had asked Egypt and Fatah, the Palestian movement that governs the West Bank, "if they were willing to assume control of Gaza once Israel defeated Hamas" prior to Israeli's devastating attack on Gaza in late 2008. That revelation comes in a June 2009 cable that you can read here. Haaretz's writeup is here.
  • Afghan corruption: The U.S. government deals regularly with a brother of President Hamid Karzai whom it believes to be corrupt and a drug trafficker. That's the conclusion of a cable from October 2009 about Ahmed Wali Karzai, who has also been reported to be on the CIA payroll. This does not come as a shock, but it amounts to official recognition that a U.S. partner in Afghanistan is implicated in criminal enterprises. AFP has more on this story.
  • Undiplomatic name-calling: This is probably less important than the revelations above, but it is already making waves in the international press: Several of the cables have U.S. diplomats describing foreign leaders in unfriendly terms -- from comparing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler to calling Russia's Vladimir Putin "alpha-dog" and French President Nicolas Sarkozy "the emperor with no clothes." The CBC has more.

What are we missing here? Shoot us an e-mail if you see anything of interest in the documents.

By Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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