WASHINGTON — The Obama administration moved Monday to contain potential damage to U.S. national security from the WikiLeaks release of tens of thousands of sensitive U.S. diplomatic documents and said it might take criminal action against the whistle-blowing Internet site.
The White House directed a governmentwide review of guidelines for classified information handling, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered tighter safeguards for U.S. diplomatic communications. Meanwhile, the CIA was assessing harm done to U.S. intelligence operations.
"This is a serious violation of the law," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "This is a serious threat to individuals that both carry out and assist our foreign policy."
Attorney General Eric Holder said that "an active, ongoing criminal investigation" was under way, and he indicated that foreigners associated with WikiLeaks, including its Australian founder, Julian Assange, could be targeted.
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"Let me be very clear: It's not saber-rattling. To the extent that we can find anybody who was involved in the breaking of American law ... they will be held responsible. They will be held accountable," Holder said.
Clinton said the release of the cables was "not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests. It is an attack on the international community, the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity."
At the same time, senior administration officials began moderating their assessment of the potential harm done by the leaked documents, the first batch of which was released Sunday. While lives could be at risk and ties with some countries hurt, they said, relationships with key governments will weather the fallout.
"I am confident that the partnerships that the Obama administration has worked so hard to build will withstand this challenge," said Clinton, who took pains at a news conference not to confirm the authenticity of the materials, calling them "alleged cables."
In the latest revelations, a Feb. 3 cable from the U.S. ambassador to South Korea quoted the country's vice foreign minister as saying that "China would not be able to stop North Korea's collapse" after the death of its ailing dictator, Kim Jong Il.
The isolated nuclear-armed Stalinist nation has "already collapsed economically and would collapse politically" two or three years after Kim dies, South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo was quoted as telling U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens in the secret cable to Washington written by Stephens.
Chun said unidentified "sophisticated Chinese officials" — whose names were redacted from the cable — believed that the divided Korean peninsula should be reunited under the control of a South Korea in a "benign alliance" with the United States.
There was no way to confirm how widespread the view of these two officials is within the Chinese leadership.
Clinton said she had ordered "new security safeguards" to protect State Department information carried on Defense Department computer systems "and elsewhere... so that this kind of breach cannot and does not happen ever again."
CIA officials, meanwhile, were poring over the cables "to assess the extent of any intelligence concerns," said a senior U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Clinton used her first public comments on the leaks to justify the administration's preoccupation with Iran's nuclear program. The views of Arab and European leaders detailed in the cables showed the extent to which they share the fear that Tehran is secretly developing weapons, she said.
"The comments that are being reported on, allegedly, from the cables, confirm the fact that Iran poses a very serious threat in the eyes of many of her neighbors and a serious concern far beyond the (Middle East) region," she said. "That is why the international community came together to pass the strongest possible sanctions against Iran."
The first batch of cables appeared to contain no major bombshells. But they did reveal American diplomats' embarrassing portraits of international leaders, U.S. intelligence information, the confidential views of human rights activists, journalists and opposition figures, and stark differences between public pronouncements by American and foreign officials and the stances they privately held.
WikiLeaks on Sunday released the first batch of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables, some 11,000 of which were classified secret, in coordination with The New York Times and four European publications.
New batches of documents were to be made public throughout the week.
The online whistle-blowing site, which publishes restricted government documents and other materials, is alleged to have received the cables from a U.S. Army intelligence analyst with access to a Pentagon-run computer system that carries defense and diplomatic documents classified up to secret.