In "The Sweep," CNN dives deep into issues that are making news and explores why they're in the headlines.
Washington (CNN) -- WikiLeaks' avalanche of U.S. State Department cables had just hit the internet when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton boarded a plane for a meeting of European countries in Kazakhstan.
Descending the stairs from her plane in the biting Central Asian cold, she was braced for what wasn't officially on the agenda: apologizing to some of the 52 leaders she was about to see who were the targets of highly embarrassing comments by U.S. diplomats contained in those cables.
Cables by a U.S. Embassy official described the meeting's host, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the man whose hand she was about to shake, as having a lavish lifestyle, his prime minister as dancing the night away in a disco. There were some tough moments, but a top Kazakh diplomat who attended the meeting in Astana says that Clinton "kept her face. She didn't run away from difficult questions."
One by one Clinton and her top aides met with each of the ministers, explaining, apologizing, cajoling and trying -- in spite of the harsh words in the cables -- to salvage the relationships that she and the Obama administration had worked hard to establish.
In Washington, the State Department went into "war room" mode, pulling together an emergency round-the-clock team to handle the fallout.
While embarrassing to both U.S. diplomats and the foreign leaders mentioned in the cables, there haven't been any bombshells out of the small percentage of cables released so far. But the implications of the leaks -- not just for America's relations with countries around the world but for politics worldwide, security of information and the future of an unregulated cyberworld -- are enormous and not yet fully known.
The practical effects already are being felt at U.S. embassies overseas.
In foreign capitals, some countries are limiting the number of American diplomats who can attend meetings. Those who are invited are asked to leave their notebooks behind. Several foreign diplomats said this lingering distrust of American officials is likely to remain for some time. Few leaders, they said, will feel comfortable expressing honest views, fearing they will be quoted in cables that will be splashed across the internet.
American diplomats also have been burned by comments they made about world leaders.
Negative impressions of Afghan President Hamid Karzai by Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, were already well-known, thanks to cables he wrote to Washington leaked last year. But scathing new cables in which Eikenberry calls Karzai "paranoid," "weak" and an "overly self-conscious" leader have further aggravated already strained relations with the Afghan leader and are sure to make it more difficult for the U.S. diplomat to do his job.
Similarly, future meetings between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Philip Murphy, the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, won't be all that comfortable after a leaked dispatch by Murphy dubbed the German leader "risk averse and rarely creative."
Leaks damage relationships with U.S. allies
The leaks also have been a cold shower for some U.S. allies who felt they had a warm embrace from Washington.
Perhaps Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski put it best when he said he had no more illusions about his country's ties with the U.S. after reading WikiLeak cables that show the United States puts relations with Russia ahead of Poland's security interests. This month in Washington, Komorowski said he told President Obama, "I simply believe that very much has gone the wrong way in Polish-American relations. And this can be testified to by leaks from different American cables."
Clinton went to great lengths to make clear that the opinions of diplomats expressed in the cables don't reflect official U.S. policy. The authors, she and other U.S. officials said, are simply giving unvarnished feedback to Washington about the situation in other countries, something all diplomats are accustomed to doing.
More damaging, however, are revelations about the views of America's interlocutors about their own countries.
In Germany, the chief of staff in the foreign minister's party headquarters was forced to resign over a leaked cable that showed he was regularly briefing U.S. officials on the political situation inside his country. Such valuable intelligence from insiders may be hard to come by post-WikiLeaks.
The ability to get insightful perspectives about third countries is likely to suffer as well.
Both Saudi King Abdullah and Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, were cited in the cables for making blunt and harsh assessments of Pakistan's civilian leaders. While their views were no surprise, would they do it again if they can't trust their confidences will be kept? Prospects for future candid conversations that provide a window into other countries look bleak.
Beyond relationships with allies, the WikiLeaks disclosures also have the potential to affect critical foreign policy issues now that the world's diplomatic cards have been laid on the table.
It was no surprise to read that Saudi Arabia's and Bahrain's fear of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. But when Abdullah is quoted as asking Obama to "cut the head off the snake" or the king of Bahrain is seen telling American officials that the Iranian nuclear program "must be stopped," it reinforces Iran's suspicions and could force Tehran to make more trouble in the region.
Officials lament that any hope U.S. allies in the Gulf would endorse tougher measures against Iran are even less likely now.
Clinton: 'An attack on the international community'
And how will China react to comments to Clinton by then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, captured in a cable, that force might be needed to contain Beijing? The candid conversation between the two leaders in which Rudd said Australia's intelligence community was keeping a close watch on China's growing military power and Clinton, concerned about China's economic rise, asked, "How do you deal toughly with your banker?" leave the U.S. exposed and the Chinese paranoid.
It is no wonder Clinton argued WikiLeaks' disclosure of the cables is "an attack on the international community." The message to wounded countries that might take delight in U.S. discomfort is that their dirty laundry could be aired, too.
Clinton has taken a dual approach to responding to the cables.
As the WikiLeak cables were hitting newsstands and websites, Clinton angrily said, "There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations on which our common security depends."
But a few minutes later, she tried to downplay the cables' contents as part of diplomatic "give-and-take." Clinton joked that at least one of her counterparts said, "Don't worry about it. You should see what we say about you."
As the U.S. makes its case against WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, it faces charges of hypocrisy that its own commitment to democracy and a free press is no stronger than the countries it criticizes. In a January speech, Clinton championed the case of internet freedom, saying, "The more freely information flows, the stronger societies become."
Clinton said, "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable."
The Obama administration is arguing that Assange is neither a journalist nor a whistle-blower. But Clinton's arguments about internet freedom have become less convenient for Washington post-WikiLeaks, a fact not lost on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who took the opportunity to score political points at the U.S. expense. Even as he was dubbed an "Alpha dog" and his country a "mafia state" in the cables, Putin fired back by saying, "If you have a democracy, then it should be full."
Referring to the case against Assange, Putin, still smarting from previous U.S. lectures to him about democracy, retorted, "We have a saying here: 'Whoever's cow it was that mooed, yours should remain quiet.' So I would like to shoot the puck back at our American friends."
State Department disconnects from central database
As the U.S. seeks to contain the diplomatic fallout, it also is trying frantically to ensure such a breach doesn't happen again.
Before 9/11, the State Department operated its own internal cable system and encrypted documents to ensure security. After the attacks, it was merged into a new digital records system controlled by the Defense Department to which more than 1 million government employees had access. Since the WikiLeaks disclosures, the State Department temporarily has severed its connection to that database while it works to prevent the future unauthorized downloading of material.
The administration has even prohibited U.S. government employees from reading the cables on the internet. And it has demanded the return of what it calls stolen property.
But it knows, in reality, that it's too late. The cables are spreading like weeds across the internet, with about 1,300 mirror sites so far copying the dispatches and reposting them in a seemingly endless cyber cycle.
Moreover, the WikiLeaks saga has turned the internet into the Wild West. While Assange fired the first volley -- what is being referred to as the first "cyberwar" -- armies of both supporters and opponents are in open combat on the Web.
In the initial moments after the cables' release, hackers tried to shut WikiLeaks down, with the site experiencing denial of service attacks. While it is unclear whether these cyber mercenaries were working on behalf of the U.S. government, they seemed to be supporting the U.S. claims that the disclosures were dangerous to national security.
Assanges' supporters shot back with anonymous "hacktivists" attacking the sites of companies such as Amazon, which threw WikiLeaks off its servers, and MasterCard and PayPal, which froze WikiLeaks accounts and prevented Assange's supporters from donating to his cause.
These cyber vigilantes, launching what they called "Operation Payback," even sought to attack the website of the Swedish prosecutor who issued Assange's arrest warrant on sexual-abuse allegations.
WikiLeaks sought to distance itself from these hackers, saying there is no affiliation with a loosely knit online movement known as "Anonymous," which took credit for the attacks.
Cyberwar taking a sinister turn
The cyberwar has taken an even more sinister turn in foreign capitals, with some countries generating fake cables to bolster their political agendas.
Already one Pakistani news agency had to retract cables, published in Pakistani newspapers about India meddling in Pakistani affairs. One, revealed to be a forgery, spoke of India's role in supporting insurgents in Pakistan's tribal regions, while another talked about rifts in India's top army command and yet another mentioned "Bosnialike genocide" by the Indian army in Kashmir. The potential for diplomatic missteps based on erroneous information is enormous.
Many have wondered why the U.S. government, with its own sophisticated cyberwarfare capabilities, has not moved to shut WikiLeaks down if, as Clinton has argued, the leaks threaten national security.
With cyberspace still a new battleground, the administration is struggling with rules to govern such warfare, especially against an unconventional enemy. A cyber-attack on WikiLeaks might not even work, given the prolific spread of the cables to countless other sites. It also could expose U.S. cyber capabilities to much more lethal enemies, such as Iran or terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
While the cables are embarrassing and are likely to cause discomfort with allies for some time to come, officials acknowledge the threat posed by their release does not warrant a cyberwar using the full scale of the U.S. cyber arsenal.
The administration eventually will recover from this embarrassment, but cyber experts warn the anarchy spawned by WikiLeaks could mark the beginning of uncharted waters online. With the lack of regulations on the internet, this popular rebellion of tech-savvy activists is hard to trace and even harder to stop. Nobody knows where they will strike next.