Dates of cables
Release of 251,287 United States diplomatic cables
Period of release
18 February 2010 – 1 September 2011
El País, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, The Guardian, The New York Times, WikiLeaks
Data protection, First Amendment, freedom of information, freedom of speech
The United States diplomatic cables leak, widely known as Cablegate, began on Sunday, 28 November 2010 when WikiLeaks—a non-profit organization that publishes submissions from anonymous whistleblowers—began releasing classified cables that had been sent to the U.S. State Department by 274 of its consulates, embassies, and diplomatic missions around the world. Dated between December 1966 and February 2010, the cables contain diplomatic analysis from world leaders, and the diplomats' assessment of host countries and their officials. According to WikiLeaks, the 251,287 cables consist of 261,276,536 words, making Cablegate "the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain." Today, more recent leaks have surpassed that amount.
- November 2010 release of redacted cables
- September 2011 release of unredacted cables
- Consequences of the release
- Denial of service attack
- Dropping of hosting finance services and accessibility
- Anonymous and anti censorship
- Manipulation of news based on WikiLeaks cables
- Twitter subpoena
- Tunisian revolution and Arab Spring
The first document, the so-called Reykjavik 13 cable, was released by WikiLeaks on 18 February 2010, and was followed by the release of State Department profiles of Icelandic politicians a month later. Later that year, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' editor-in-chief, reached an agreement with media partners in Europe and the United States to publish the rest of the cables in redacted form, removing the names of sources and others in vulnerable positions. On 28 November, the first 220 cables were published under this agreement by El País (Spain), Der Spiegel (Germany), Le Monde (France), The Guardian (United Kingdom) and The New York Times (United States). WikiLeaks had planned to release the rest over several months, and as of 11 January 2011, 2,017 had been published.
The remaining cables were published in September 2011 after a series of events compromised the security of a WikiLeaks file containing the cables. This included WikiLeaks volunteers placing an encrypted file containing all WikiLeaks data online as "insurance" in July 2010, in case something happened to the organization. In February 2011 David Leigh of The Guardian published the encryption passphrase in a book; he had received it from Assange so he could access a copy of the Cablegate file, and believed the passphrase was a temporary one, unique to that file. In August 2011, a German magazine, Der Freitag, published some of these details, enabling others to piece the information together and decrypt the Cablegate files. The cables were then available online, fully unredacted. In response, WikiLeaks decided on 1 September 2011 to publish all 251,287 unedited documents.
The publication of the cables was the third in a series of U.S. classified document "mega-leaks" distributed by WikiLeaks in 2010, following the Afghan War documents leak in July, and the Iraq War documents leak in October. Over 130,000 of the cables are unclassified, some 100,000 are labeled "confidential", around 15,000 have the higher classification "secret", and none are classified as "top secret" on the classification scale. Reactions to the leak in 2010 varied. Western governments expressed strong disapproval, while the material generated intense interest from the public and journalists. Some political leaders referred to Assange as a criminal, while blaming the U.S. Department of Defense for security lapses. Supporters of Assange referred to him in November 2010 as a key defender of free speech and freedom of the press. Reaction to the release in September 2011 of the unredacted cables attracted stronger criticism, and was condemned by the five newspapers that had first published the cables in redacted form in November 2010.
In June 2010, the magazine Wired reported that the U.S. State Department and embassy personnel were concerned that Chelsea (then known as Bradley) Manning, a United States Army soldier charged with the unauthorized download of classified material while stationed in Iraq, had leaked diplomatic cables. WikiLeaks rejected the report as inaccurate: "Allegations in Wired that we have been sent 260,000 classified U.S. embassy cables are, as far as we can tell, incorrect".
However, by June 2010, The Guardian had been offered "half a million military dispatches from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. There might be more after that, including an immense bundle of confidential diplomatic cables", and Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian had contacted Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, to see if he would be interested in sharing the dissemination of the information.
Manning was suspected to have uploaded all that was obtained to WikiLeaks, which chose to release the material in stages so as to have the greatest possible impact.
According to The Guardian, all the diplomatic cables were marked "Sipdis", denoting "secret internet protocol distribution", which means they had been distributed via the closed U.S. SIPRNet, the U.S. Department of Defense's classified version of the civilian internet. More than three million U.S. government personnel and soldiers have access to this network. Documents marked "top secret" are not included in the system. Such a large quantity of secret information was available to a wide audience because, as The Guardian alleged, after the 11 September attacks an increased focus had been placed on sharing information since gaps in intra-governmental information sharing had been exposed. More specifically, the diplomatic, military, law enforcement and intelligence communities would be able to do their jobs better with this easy access to analytic and operative information. A spokesman said that in the previous weeks and months additional measures had been taken to improve the security of the system and prevent leaks.
On 22 November, an announcement was made via WikiLeaks's Twitter feed that the next release would be "7× the size of the Iraq War Logs". U.S. authorities and the media had speculated, at the time, that they could contain diplomatic cables. Prior to the expected leak, the government of the United Kingdom (UK) sent a DA-Notice to UK newspapers, which requested advance notice from newspapers regarding the expected publication. Index on Censorship pointed out that "there is no obligation on [the] media to comply". Under the terms of a DA-Notice, "[n]ewspaper editors would speak to [the] Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee prior to publication". The Guardian was revealed to have been the source of the copy of the documents given to The New York Times in order to prevent the British government from obtaining any injunction against its publication. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn stated that the U.S. newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post were expected to publish parts of the diplomatic cables on 28 November, including 94 Pakistan-related documents.
On 26 November, Assange sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State, via his lawyer Jennifer Robinson, inviting them to "privately nominate any specific instances (record numbers or names) where it considers the publication of information would put individual persons at significant risk of harm that has not already been addressed". Harold Koh, the Legal Adviser of the Department of State, rejected the proposal, stating: "We will not engage in a negotiation regarding the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained U.S. Government classified materials". Assange responded by writing back to the U.S. State Department that "you have chosen to respond in a manner which leads me to conclude that the supposed risks are entirely fanciful and you are instead concerned to suppress evidence of human rights abuse and other criminal behaviour". Ahead of the leak, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other American officials contacted governments in several countries about the impending release.
November 2010 release of redacted cables
The five newspapers that had obtained an advance copy of all leaked cables began releasing the cables on 28 November 2010, and WikiLeaks made the cables selected by these newspapers and redacted by their journalists available on its website. "They are releasing the documents we selected", Le Monde's managing editor, Sylvie Kauffmann, said in an interview.
WikiLeaks aimed to release the cables in phases over several months due to their global scope and significance. The first batch of leaks released comprised 220 cables. Further cables were subsequently made available on the WikiLeaks website. The full set of cables published by WikiLeaks can be browsed and searched by a variety of websites, see Sites offering search capabilities.
The contents of the U.S. diplomatic cables leak describe in detail events and incidents surrounding international affairs from 274 embassies dating from 28 December 1966 to 28 February 2010. The diplomatic cables revealed numerous unguarded comments and revelations: critiques and praises about the host countries of various U.S. embassies, discussion and resolutions towards ending ongoing tension in the Middle East, efforts for and resistance against nuclear disarmament, actions in the War on Terror, assessments of other threats around the world, dealings between various countries, U.S. intelligence and counterintelligence efforts, U.S. support of dictatorship and other diplomatic actions.
The leaked cables revealed that diplomats of the U.S. and Britain eavesdropped on Secretary General Kofi Annan in the weeks before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, in apparent violation of international treaties prohibiting spying at the UN.
The Guardian released its coverage of the leaked cables in numerous articles, including an interactive database, starting on 28 November.
Der Spiegel also released its preliminary report, with extended coverage promised for the next day. Its cover for 29 November was also leaked with the initial report.
The New York Times initially covered the story in a nine-part series spanning nine days, with the first story published simultaneously with the other outlets. The New York Times was not originally intended to receive the leak, allegedly due to its unflattering portrayal of the site's founder, but The Guardian decided to share coverage, citing earlier cooperation while covering the Afghan and Iraqi war logs.
The Washington Post reported that it also requested permission to see the documents, but was rejected for undisclosed reasons.
El País released its report saying there was an agreement between the newspapers for simultaneous publication of the "internationally relevant" documents, but that each newspaper was free to select and treat those documents that primarily relate to its own country.
Several of the newspapers coordinating with WikiLeaks have published some of the cables on their own websites.
The Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Akhbar published about 183 cables on 2 December 2010.
The Swedish newspapers Svenska Dagbladet and Aftonbladet started reporting on the leaks early December. In Norway Verdens Gang (VG) brought the first leaks concerning USA and the Norwegian government on 7 December.
Aftenposten, a Norwegian daily newspaper, reported on 17 December 2010 that it had gained access to the full cable set of 251,287 documents. While it is unclear how it received the documents, they were apparently not obtained directly from WikiLeaks. Aftenposten started releasing cables that are not available in the official WikiLeaks distribution. As of 5 January 2011, it had released just over one hundred cables unpublished by WikiLeaks, with about a third of these related to Sri Lanka, and many related to Norway.
Politiken, a Danish daily newspaper, announced on 8 January 2011 that it had obtained access to the full set of cables.
NRC, a Dutch daily newspaper, and RTL Nieuws, a Dutch television news service, announced on 14 January 2011 that they had gained access to the about 3,000 cables sent from The Hague, via Aftenposten. NOS announced on the same day that it had obtained these same cables from Wikileaks.
Die Welt, a German daily newspaper, announced on 17 January 2011 that they had gained access to the full set of cables, via Aftenposten.
Australian-based Fairfax Media obtained access to the cables under a separate arrangement. Fairfax newspapers began releasing their own stories based on the leaked cables on 7 December 2010. Unlike other newspapers given access, Fairfax originally had not posted any of the original cables online, citing the need to maintain its competitive advantage over other Australian newspapers. However, on 16 December 2010, Fairfax reversed its position, and began publishing the cables used in its stories.
The Russian weekly newspaper Russky Reporter (Русский Репортёр) has published a large number of cables, both in English and in Russian translation.
The Cuban government-run website Razones de Cuba started publishing Spanish translations of WikiLeaks documents on 23 December 2010.
The Costa Rican newspaper La Nación announced on 1 March 2011 it had received 827 cables from WikiLeaks which it started publishing the next day. 764 of these were sent from the U.S. Embassy in San José while 63 were sent from other embassies and deal with Costa Rican affairs.
CNN was originally supposed to receive an advance copy of the documents as well, but did not after it refused to sign a confidentiality agreement with WikiLeaks. The Wall Street Journal also refused advance access, apparently for similar reasons as CNN.
The Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo started releasing 343 cables related to the Ecuadorian government or institutions on 6 April 2011. The publication was done the day after the Spanish newspaper El País published a cable in which the ambassador Heather Hodges showed concerns regarding corruption in the Ecuadorian National Police, especially of Gral. Jaime Hurtado Vaca, former Police commander. The ambassador was later declared persona non grata and requested to leave the country as soon as possible.
September 2011 release of unredacted cables
In August 2010, Assange gave Guardian journalist David Leigh an encryption key and a URL where he could locate the full Cablegate file. In February 2011, shortly before Domscheit-Berg's book appeared, he and Luke Harding, another Guardian journalist, published WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy via Guardian Books. In it, Leigh revealed the encryption key Assange had given him.
It is not yet clear how or when the encrypted file itself was released inadvertently. So far it appears that it was released to bittorrent as part of a mirror file for the WikiLeaks web server on which it had been placed to aid in transferring the file from WikiLeaks to Leigh, and either not removed due to oversight, or mirrored by other WikiLeaks staff before it could be removed. The password leaked in Leigh's book is not the password for the whole of the "insurance file" which WikiLeaks published in a separate event. It also remains unclear if during the transfer process the file was exposed publicly under the assumption that it is acceptable to transfer an encrypted file in plain sight so long as the key remains secret.
On 25 August 2011, the German magazine Der Freitag published an article about it, and while it left out the crucial details, there was enough to allow others to piece the information together. The story was also published in the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information the same day. By 1 September, the encrypted Cablegate file had been decrypted and published by a Twitter user, and WikiLeaks therefore decided to publish all the diplomatic cables unredacted. Their reasoning, according to Glenn Greenwald in Salon, was that government intelligence agencies were able to find and read the files, while ordinary people-including journalists, whistleblowers, and those directly affected-were not. WikiLeaks took the view that sources could better protect themselves if the information were equally available. The archive includes 34,687 files on Iraq, 8,003 on Kuwait, 9,755 on Australia, and 12,606 on Egypt. According to The Guardian, it includes more than 1,000 cables containing the names of individual activists, and around 150 identifying whistleblowers.
Leigh disclaimed responsibility for the release, saying Assange had assured him the password would expire hours after it was disclosed to him. The Guardian wrote that the decision to publish the cables was made by Assange alone, a decision that it-and its four previous media partners-condemned. The partners released a joint statement saying the uncensored publication put sources at risk of dismissal, detention and physical harm, while other commentators have agreed with WikiLeaks' rationale for the release of unredacted cables. Leigh was nevertheless criticized by several commentators, including Glenn Greenwald, who called the publication of the password "reckless", arguing that, even if it had been a temporary one, publishing it divulged the type of passwords WikiLeaks was using. WikiLeaks said it was pursuing pre-litigation action against The Guardian for an alleged breach of a confidentiality agreement.
Consequences of the release
An investigation into two senior Zimbabwe army commanders who communicated with US Ambassador Charles A. Ray was launched, with the two facing a possible court martial. On September 14 the Committee to Protect Journalists said that an Ethiopian journalist named in the cables was forced to flee the country but WikiLeaks accused the CPJ of distorting the situation "for marketing purposes". Al Jazeera replaced its news director, Wadah Khanfar, on September 20 after he was identified in the cables. The naming of mainland China residents reportedly "sparked an online witch-hunt by Chinese nationalist groups, with some advocating violence against those now known to have met with U.S. Embassy staff."
About an hour prior to the planned release of the initial documents, WikiLeaks announced it was experiencing a massive distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS), but vowed to still release the cables and documents via pre-agreed prominent media outlets El País, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and The New York Times.
According to Arbor Networks, an Internet-analyst group, the DDoS attack accounted for between two and four gigabits per second (Gbit/s) of additional traffic to the WikiLeaks host network, compared to an average traffic of between twelve and fifteen Gbit/s under ordinary conditions. The attack was slightly more powerful than ordinary DDoS attacks, though well below the maximum of 60 to 100 Gbit/s of other major attacks during 2010. The attack was claimed to have been carried out by a person by the name of "Jester", who describes himself as a "hacktivist". Jester took credit for the attack on Twitter, stating that WikiLeaks "threaten[ed] the lives of our troops and 'other assets'".
On 2 December 2010, EveryDNS, who provide a free DNS hosting service, dropped WikiLeaks from its entries, citing DDoS attacks that "threatened the stability of its infrastructure", but the site was copied and made available at many other addresses, an example of the Streisand effect.
John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote a tweet saying: "The first serious infowar is now engaged. The field of battle is WikiLeaks. You are the troops."
Dropping of hosting, finance services, and accessibility
Amazon.com removed WikiLeaks from its servers on 1 December 2010 at 19:30 GMT, and the latter website was unreachable until 20:17 GMT when the site had defaulted to its Swedish servers, hosted by Bahnhof.
U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, among the members of the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who had questioned Amazon in private communication on the company's hosting of WikiLeaks and the illegally obtained documents, commended Amazon for the action; WikiLeaks, however, responded by stating on its official Twitter page that "WikiLeaks servers at Amazon ousted. Free speech the land of the free—fine our $ are now spent to employ people in Europe", and later that "If Amazon are so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books".
On December 2, 2010, Tableau Software withdraw its visualizations from the contents of the leak, stating that it was directly due to political pressure from Joe Lieberman.
On 4 December, Paypal cut off the account used by WikiLeaks to collect donations.
On 6 December, the Swiss bank PostFinance announced that it had frozen the assets of Assange; on the same day, MasterCard stopped payments to WikiLeaks, with Visa following them on 7 December.
Official efforts by the U.S. government to limit access to, conversation about, and general spread of the cables leaked by WikiLeaks were revealed by leading media organizations. A 4 December 2010 article by MSNBC, reported that the Obama administration has warned federal government employees and students in educational institutions studying towards careers in public service that they must refrain from downloading or linking to any WikiLeaks documents. However, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denied ordering students, stating, "We do not control private networks. We have issued no authoritative instructions to people who are not employees of the Department of State." He said the warning was from an "overzealous employee." According to a 3 December 2010 article in The Guardian, access to WikiLeaks has been blocked for federal workers. The U.S. Library of Congress, the U.S. Commerce Department and other government agencies have confirmed that the ban is already in place.
A spokesman for Columbia University confirmed on 4 December that its Office of Career Services sent an e-mail warning students at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs to refrain from accessing WikiLeaks cables and discussing this subject on the grounds that "discourse about the documents would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information". However, this was quickly retracted on the following day. SIPA Dean John Henry Coatsworth wrote that "Freedom of information and expression is a core value of our institution, [...] thus, SIPA's position is that students have a right to discuss and debate any information in the public arena that they deem relevant to their studies or to their roles as global citizens, and to do so without fear of adverse consequences."
The New York Times reported on 14 December that the U.S. Air Force bars its personnel from access to news sites (such as those of The New York Times and The Guardian) that publish leaked cables.
On 18 December, the Bank of America stopped handling payments for WikiLeaks. Bank of America is also blocking access to WikiLeaks from its internal network preventing employees from accessing WikiLeaks.
Anonymous and anti-censorship
In response to perceived federal and corporate censorship of the cable leaks, internet group Anonymous attacked several of such websites via DDOS attacks. So far, the websites of the Swedish prosecutor, PostFinance (the Swiss post-office banking company), MasterCard and Visa have all been targeted.
The websites of the government of Zimbabwe were targeted by Anonymous with DDoS attacks due to censorship of the WikiLeaks documents. The websites of the government of Tunisia were targeted by Anonymous due to censorship of the WikiLeaks documents and the Tunisian revolution. Tunisians were reported to be assisting in these denial-of-service attacks launched by Anonymous. Anonymous's role in the DDoS attacks on the Tunisian government's websites have led to an upsurge of internet activism among Tunisians against the government. Anonymous released an online message denouncing the government clampdown on recent protests and posted it on the Tunisian government website. Anonymous has named their attacks as "Operation Tunisia". Anonymous successfully DDoSsed eight Tunisian government websites. They plan attacks in Internet Relay Chat networks. Someone attacked Anonymous's website with a DDoS on 5 January.
Manipulation of news based on WikiLeaks cables
On 9 December 2010, major Pakistani newspapers (such as The News International, The Express Tribune and the Daily Jang) and television channels carried stories that claimed to detail U.S. diplomats' assessments of senior Indian generals as "vain, egotistical and genocidal", also saying "India's government is secretly allied with Hindu fundamentalists", and that "Indian spies are covertly supporting Islamist militants in Pakistan's tribal belt and Balochistan." However, none of the cables revealed any such assessments. The claims were credited to an Islamabad-based news service agency that frequently ran pro-Pakistan Army stories.
Later, The News International admitted the story "was dubious and may have been planted", and The Express Tribune offered "profuse" apologies to readers. Urdu-language papers such as the Daily Jang, however, declined to retract the story.
On 14 December 2010, a U.S. federal court subpoenaed Twitter for extensive information regarding WikiLeaks, but also put on a gagging order. The order was said to be part of an "ongoing criminal investigation", and required information regarding the Twitter accounts of WikiLeaks, Assange, Manning, Rop Gonggrijp, Jacob Appelbaum and Birgitta Jonsdottir. According to Salon.com journalist Glenn Greenwald, the court "gave Twitter three days to respond and barred the company from notifying anyone, including the users, of the existence of the Order." Twitter requested that it be allowed to notify the users, giving them ten days to object. The court order was unsealed on 5 January 2011, and Jonsdottir decided to publicly fight the order.
Elected representatives of Iceland have declared such actions by the U.S. government "serious", "peculiar", "outlandish", and akin to heavy breathing on the telephone. The published subpoena text demands "you are to provide ... subscriber names, user names ... mailing addresses, residential addresses, business addresses ... telephone number[s] ... credit card or bank account number[s] ... billing records", "as well as 'destination email addresses and IP addresses". As of 10 January 2011, there were 636,759 followers of the WikiLeaks Twitter feed with destination email addresses and IP addresses.
Tunisian revolution and Arab Spring
The cable leaks have been pointed to as a catalyst for the 2010–2011 Tunisian revolution and government overthrow. Foreign Policy magazine said, "We might also count Tunisia as the first time that WikiLeaks pushed people over the brink." Additionally, The New York Times said, "The protesters...found grist for the complaints in leaked cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia, released by WikiLeaks, that detailed the self-dealing and excess of the president's family."
It is widely believed that the Tunisian revolution then spread to other parts of the Middle East, turning into the Arab Spring.