The case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange may have been exaggerated, US officials have suggested, after differences emerged between the US State Department and the White House over the damage caused by the whistle-blowing website.
Top diplomats told members of Congress in private briefings that the fallout from WikiLeaks’ outing of more than 250,000 secret diplomatic cables has not been especially bad, UK newspaper The Guardian revealed today.
The view from the State Department directly contradicts the White House’s official line – designed to justify US legal efforts against WikiLeaks – that the so-called ‘Cablegate’ memos had resulted in lasting damage to US relations worldwide.
According to The Guardian’s report, a congressional official told news agency Reuters that the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had affected US interests, so that they could legitimise attempts shut down the site and bring charges against Assange and others.
"I think they want to present the toughest front they can muster," the official said.
Aside from a few specific cables, such as those relating to Yemen, the Cablegate leaks had resulted in bad publicity, but would have little effect on policy.
"We were told [it] was embarrassing, not damaging," the official informed Reuters.
Conflicting assessments as to the likely effect of WikiLeaks’ revelations have been a persistent feature of US government reaction ever since the Cablegate communciations were leaked in late November.
State Department head Hillary Clinton’s immediate take on the leak was unambiguous: "It puts people's lives in danger, threatens our national security and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems."
"We are taking aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information," she added.
A few weeks later, vice president Joe Biden flip-flopped over the issue, claiming in an interview with MSNBC's Andrew Mitchell on 16th December: "I don't think there's any substantive damage".
A few days later, Biden had changed his tune, claiming that WikiLeaks had "done damage" to the reputation and security of the US.
Lawyers for Julian Assange last week issued a stark warning over the dangers their client faces if extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over allegations of sexual misconduct.
In a statement following Assange’s latest UK court appearance, they claimed there was a “real risk” of the WikiLeaks founder being illegally rendered to the United States, where he may face execution or imprisonment at the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison camp.
A federal Grand Jury convened in secret just outside Washington in Alexandria, Virginia is believed to be considering charges of espionage against the WikiLeaks founder.