US Feds open criminal investigation into WikiLeaks disclosures

Federal authorities have opened a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks' disclosure of a trove of classified U.S. documents, the Justice Department said Monday as the release of hundreds of thousands of papers left diplomats worldwide scrambling to respond.

"It is not saber-rattling," Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters in response to a question. "To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law, they will be held responsible."

Holder’s announcement came as the Office of Management and Budget ordered federal agencies that handle classified information to establish a "security assessment team" to review their handling of procedures to keep classified information from improper disclosure.

The teams, to be composed of counterintelligence, security and information assurance experts, are to evaluate each agency’s handling of classified information "to ensure that users do not have broader access than is necessary to do their jobs effectively, as well as implementation of restrictions on usage of, and removable media capabilities from, classified government computer networks."

U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is a prime suspect in previous leaks. Before October’s release of information on Iraq, Manning was being held in Quantico, Virginia, charged with leaking video of an Iraq airstrike to WikiLeaks as well as removing classified information from military computers.

Among the initial revelations in the papers are allegations that:

— Saudi King Abdullah urged the United States to attack Iran to halt its nuclear program, warning that if Tehran were to go nuclear, other countries in the region would, too.

— The United States keeps bombers ready to strike al Qaeda targets in Yemen if "actionable intelligence becomes available."

— The U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe predicted in July 2007 that President Robert Mugabe would soon be out of power, saying, "The End is Nigh." Mugabe remains president, although he is now in a power-sharing agreement with the former opposition.

The leaked papers also include what seems to be an order from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to American diplomats to engage in intelligence-gathering.

In the order, Clinton directs her envoys at embassies around the world to collect information ranging from basic biographical data on diplomats to their frequent flyer and credit card numbers, and even "biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats."

Typical biometric information can include fingerprints, signatures and iris recognition data.

The cable, signed ‘CLINTON,’ is classified S/NF — or "Secret/No Foreign" — and was sent to 33 U.S. embassies and the U.N. mission offices in New York, Vienna and Rome.

"Is it a natural part of diplomatic activity to have diplomats collecting biometric data?" WikiLeaks spokesman Hrafnsson asked Monday, calling it "a contravention of how diplomats are supposed to conduct business."

The State Department denied that its diplomats were spies.

"Contrary to some Wikileaks’ reporting, our diplomats are diplomats. They are not intelligence assets," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Twitter.

He downplayed the cable’s significance by writing in a separate tweet: "Diplomats collect information that shapes our policies and actions. Diplomats for all nations do the same thing."

At the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice would neither confirm not deny the authenticity of the cable. "I’m not going to get into commenting on classified material or alleged classified material," she said.

Hrafnsson denied that Sunday’s release of papers harms United States security.

"I don’t believe anything in these cables are national security concerns," he said.

"If we are talking about strained relations or embarrassment, that does not fall into national security concerns," he said with a shrug.

"Secret" is not the highest level of classification, Hrafnsson pointed out. WikiLeaks has no top-secret documents, he said, adding that more than half are unclassified.

The British Foreign Office on Monday condemned the release of any classified documents.

"They can damage national security, are not in the national interest and, as the U.S. [has] said, may put lives at risk," the office said in a statement.

A spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari weighed in with a statement about documents mentioning Zardari and Saudi King Abdullah, saying the "so-called leaks are no more than an attempt to create misperceptions between two important and brotherly Muslim countries."

The office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai downplayed the significance of the revelations.

"The things that have been said about President Karzai are not new. They’ve been alleged in the media in the past, and we are not surprised," a spokesman for Karzai said.

The New York Times and four European newspapers that had received the documents in advance began publishing excerpts Sunday.

Many of them detail conversations on sensitive issues between American officials and leaders in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Topics in the documents include pressure from U.S. allies in the Middle East for decisive action to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program, conversations about military action against al Qaeda militants in Yemen, and Washington’s efforts to have highly enriched uranium removed from a Pakistani research reactor.

"The cables show the U.S. spying on its allies and the U.N.; turning a blind eye to corruption and human-rights abuse in ‘client states’; backroom deals with supposedly neutral countries; and lobbying for U.S. corporations," the site’s editor-in-chief and spokesman, Julian Assange, said Sunday in a statement.

"I was surprised at [the] extent of the spying," WikiLeaks’ Kristinn Hrafnsson said.

Over the coming weeks or months, WikiLeaks will release 251,288 cables written by U.S. diplomats between 1966 and February 2010, Hrafnsson said.

The secrets-busting website, which began publishing the trove of confidential U.S. government papers on Sunday, didn’t expect the papers to reveal as much espionage as they apparently do, a spokesman said Monday. – CNN