Julian Assange ignored an 11th-hour plea from the State Department to withhold publication. | AP Photo Close

By GLENN THRUSH & GORDON LUBOLD & LAURA ROZEN | 11/28/10 2:15 PM EST

WikiLeaks has dropped its bombshell cache of U.S. diplomatic cables, ripping the cloak off scores of secret deals and duds, including clandestine North Korean support for Iran and the Bush administration’s failed attempt to remove nuclear material from Pakistan.

The release — more than a quarter-million back-channel cables that include brutally candid assessments of world leaders and previously undisclosed details of nuclear and antiterrorism activity — represents the most embarrassing and potentially damaging disclosure of American diplomatic material in decades.

“I don’t see the world ending … but lots of red, sputtering faces in D.C., embassies and capitals,” a senior American diplomat told POLITICO early Sunday, just before the release of the documents, which chronicle the sprawling growth of the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence corps after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The diplomat also predicted that governments and individuals overseas are likely to clam up as a result of the disclosures, “since no one will trust us to keep a secret for a while,” while “various and sundry interest groups will cherry-pick whatever can be found in the documents to support whatever version of reality they are peddling.”

For weeks, the Obama administration had been pressuring WikiLeaks, and its controversial founder, Julian Assange, to withhold publication of the documents, arguing that their publication could compromise the lives of U.S. service members and officials.

Assange, whose website came under cyberattack Sunday, refused to comply — even ignoring an 11th-hour plea from the State Department’s legal adviser, who said publication of the documents was illegal and could undermine national security.

But they are also deeply embarrassing, providing off-the-cuff assessments by American diplomats of world leaders, critiques that were expected to be released only decades from now. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is compared to Hitler, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is called an “emperor with no clothes,” Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is “driven by paranoia,” according to the cables, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel earns high marks as a “Teflon” politician.

Perversely, the sheer size of the dump — a mountain of gossip, intrigue, high-stakes policy and lowbrow humor — may ensure that some damaging revelations that might have been front-page stories if leaked one by one get lost in the shuffle.

The long-expected release of the documents — scheduled to be published simultaneously at around 4:30 p.m. EST by The New York Times, Germany’s Der Spiegel, Spain’s El Pais, France’s Le Monde and Britain’s Guardian — was accelerated by a few hours after a German Twitter user obtained an early copy of Der Spiegel and began posting tidbits online. (Subsequently, it was reported by Michael Calderone at The Cutline that the New York Times got its documents from The Guardian this time.)

The two previous releases of documents by WikiLeaks produced front-page stories — the recently disclosed Iraq war logs indicated that previous American estimates of the total number of Iraqi casualties were lower than the actual number — but overall, they contained few surprising details.

The batch released Sunday, however, included vivid details about current operations and the sausage factory behind foreign policy, delivered by officials in 270 overseas posts worldwide over the past three years. The massive leak reportedly came from a service member with access to the documents.

Some of the material was so explosive that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of the past week preparing foreign leaders for the fallout — what the Guardian described as a “meltdown” of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Saudi King Abdullah frequently pressed the U.S. to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities “to cut off the head of the snake,” the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, said, according to a report on Abdullah’s meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, in April 2008.

One especially damaging revelation — previously unknown — details a conversation between Petraeus and the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in which Saleh offers to claim U.S. airstrikes on suspected Al Qaeda militants were actually conducted by his forces.

That prompted Yemen’s deputy prime minister to “joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament” that Yemeni forces had been behind the strikes.

In another cable, a U.S diplomat ruefully reports that an Afghan vice president carried $52 million in cash with him during a trip to the United Arab Emirates last year, without disclosing its origin or destination.

Yet another describes a State Department effort to coax Slovenia to accept a Guantanamo Bay detainee. In exchange, top Slovenian officials were apparently offered a face-to-face meeting with President Obama.

In a statement soon after The New York Times published major excerpts on its website, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs “condemn[ed] in the strongest terms” the release of the documents to the Times, Germany’s Der Speigel and the Times of London — which followed the pattern of previous WikiLeaks document dumps of secret Iraq and Afghanistan war documents.

“By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information,” wrote Gibbs. “It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only U.S. foreign policy interests but those of our allies and friends around the world.”

“Cable traffic is inherently more sensitive than spot reporting,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a former naval officer who worked at the National Security Council. “This is a little bit more subjective analysis,” he told POLITICO. The cables reveal the kinds of private dialogues that any nation has to have with itself, he said.

“This releasing of these sensitive cables does a disservice not only to us but our allies globally. Our government needs to be able to operate and have an open dialogue.”

Nelson, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that if the release of data was aimed at revealing a particularly egregious wrong the government had done, he could see its justification. In this case, he said, it was just a dump of thousands of documents with no apparent purpose but to embarrass the U.S. government.

Among the other significant revelations:

— North Korea, currently embroiled in a knife’s edge confrontation with South Korea and the U.S., was able to smuggle 19 advanced, Russian-designed missiles, capable of delivering nuclear payloads, to Iran, according to a Feb. 24, 2010, cable detailing a meeting between Russian officials and a State Department nonproliferation expert. The shipment of some R-27 components was widely known in intelligence circles, but the WikiLeaks disclosures represent the first confirmation that Iran now possess complete missile systems.

— In May 2009, Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, reported that Pakistani officials were blocking an American attempt to remove fissile material from a reactor in the country for fear the effort would be leaked to the local press.

— A Chinese contact tipped off the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that China’s Politburo OK’d a huge effort to hack into and eavesdrop on Google computers as part of a nearly decade-long cyber-sabotage effort aimed at American companies and supporters of the Dalai Lama.

— In 2007, U.S. officials warned Germany not to arrest CIA officials involved in the bungled rendition of an innocent German citizen who shared the same name as a wanted terror suspect.

— American diplomats in Rome reported on the close and odd friendship developing between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Italy’s colorful billionaire leader, Silvio Berlusconi. A 2009 cable alleged the pair shared “lavish gifts,” valuable energy contracts. The cable also alleged that Putin wasn’t quite the strongman portrayed in the West — painting a picture of an autocratic leader with little hold over the huge, and largely unaccountable, post-Soviet bureaucracy.

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