• The 'vain' Mr Berlusconi and 'authoritarian' Mr Sarkozy (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

WikiLeaks: US diplomats make fun of EU leaders, spy on EU citizens

29.11.10 @ 07:49

  1. By Valentina Pop
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BRUSSELS - American diplomats speak about EU leaders in terms of "Teflon Merkel," "authoritarian Sarkozy" and a "feckless, vain and ineffective Berlusconi" who is a "mouthpiece" for Russia, a first batch of secret cables sent to and from US embassies abroad and published by WikiLeaks shows.

The latest release of the whistle-blowing website, which recently published US war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq exposing war crimes and torture, began on Sunday evening (28 November) and will carry on throughout the next months until all 251,287 intercepted embassy cables are onlined.

The documents, dating from 1966 until the end of February 2010, are the largest set of confidential documents ever to be released into the public domain. The move comes amid the US government's repeated warning to WikiLeaks that it will compromise relations with allies and military operations abroad.

"The documents will give people around the world an unprecedented insight into US Government foreign activities" and expose "the extent of US spying on its allies," a statement on the WikiLeaks site says.

A first batch of documents, already processed by leading newspapers in Britain, Germany, Spain and the US, offers unflattering comments about European leaders and gives precise details about how US diplomats stationed in Europe should gather personal data such as email passwords and credit card data of European citizens.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, is described as "avoiding risk" and being "seldom creative." A cable issued on 9 September 2009, three weeks before the parliamentary elections which swept her back into power, bears the headline: "Chancellor Angela 'Teflon' Merkel takes limelight as FDP waits in the wings."

Her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, is seen as "arrogant" and "fixated on maintaining his 'cult of personality'," US diplomats note. They almost call him a liar, when reporting a meeting with the US ambassador following a crucial vote in the European Parliament in February, when the legislature rejected a data transfer deal with the US, known as the "Swift agreement."

"His comment that he was unable to affect the vote in the EU Parliament on TFTP [Terrorism Finance Tracking Program] was a bit disingenuous; on 4 February, an MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] official acknowledged to visiting Treasury officials in Berlin that German MEPs were in fact leading the charge against TFTP in the EU Parliament with the tacit support of the FDP [Mr Westerwelle's party], if not of specialists in the Justice Ministry and MFA themselves," the cable reads.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is described as having a "thin-skinned and authoritarian personal style," with US diplomats noting his tendency to noisily rebuke his team and the French prime minister, Francois Fillon.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is "feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader," according to Elizabeth Dibble, the US charge d'affaires in Rome. In reference to lavish parties and numerous scandals involving young escort girls, the US embassy noted that Mr Berlusconi is a "physically and politically weak" leader whose "frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest."

As for the Italian leader's growing fondness of Russian premier Vladimir Putin, the Rome embassy expressed its concern in 2009 over the "lavish gifts," lucrative energy contracts and a "shadowy" Russian-speaking Italian go-between. US diplomats even went as far as saying that Mr Berlusconi "appears increasingly to be the mouthpiece of Putin" in Europe.

Mr Putin himself was dubbed an "alpha dog" by the US embassy in Moscow, while the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, "plays Robin to Putin's Batman." In a separate report, Mr Medvedev is described as "pale and hesitant" and having "none of the bravado" of the former KGB officer who is now, technically, his subordinate.

Regional leaders such as Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov, also came to the attention of American diplomats.

In a 2006 cable, Mr Kadyrov was spotted bringing "a five-kilo lump of gold" as a gift to a lavish wedding in Dagestan, where drunken guests were throwing $100 bills at child dancers, while nightttime water-scooters zig-zagged around on the Caspian Sea.

German regional politicians also make it into the cables sent to Washington. On 16 February, the US consulate in Munich, Bavaria's capital, reported on a meeting with Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), Ms Merkel's sister party in Germany's wealthiest state.

"An unpredictable politician," Mr Seehofer "revealed only shallow foreign policy expertise" and "seemed uninformed about basic things," for instance that his state, Bavaria, hosts 20,000 out of a total of 40,000 US soldiers stationed in Germany.

Entire countries are mocked too: the Belgian government was told that accepting Guantanmo inmates would be "a low-cost way for Belgium to attain prominence in Europe." Slovenia was told to take a prisoner if its leader wanted to meet with President Obama.

Spying diplomats

Other news likely to resonate loudly is the detailed "human intelligence" gathering US diplomats are being instructed to perform in Europe, blurring the traditional demarcation line between spies and government envoys.

A cable on Bulgarian "reporting and collection needs" dating back to 16 June 2009 reads that "intelligence on the rule of law, corruption, and crime in the national leadership is the top priority of a directive issued to diplomats in the months ahead of secretary of state Hillary Clinton's meeting with her Bulgarian counterpart."

Reporting officers are requested to include "as much of the following information as possible" on Bulgarian citizens in their texts: names, organisational titles, private phone numbers, email addresses, credit account numbers, frequent flyer numbers and work schedules.

"Details about organized crime groups, including leadership, links to government and foreign entities, drug and human trafficking, credit card fraud, and computer-related crimes, including child pornography," are also listed on the diplomat-spies' to-do-lists.

"Corruption among senior officials, including off-budget financial flows in support of senior leaders," is another area to be worked on, as well as "assessment, vulnerability, personality, financial, health, and biometric information about current and emerging leaders and advisers."

According to the New York Times, whose reporters analysed hundreds of cables prior to the Sunday release, "the more intrusive personal information diplomats are now being asked to gather could be used by the National Security Agency for data mining and surveillance operations. A frequent-flier number, for example, could be used to track the travel plans of foreign officials."

The details emerge just as a number of Nordic countries have launched investigations into alleged spying by the local US embassies on regular citizens, after Norwegian public TV uncovered that Washington secretly commissioned surveillance of hundreds of Norwegian nationals believed to pose a threat to US interests, such as the embassy in Oslo.

Washington has repeatedly denied that its diplomats are engaged in any illegal activities.

"Our diplomats are just that, diplomats," foreign affairs spokesman Philip J. Crowley told the New York Times on Sunday. "They represent our country around the world and engage openly and transparently with representatives of foreign governments and civil society. Through this process, they collect information that shapes our policies and actions. This is what diplomats, from our country and other countries, have done for hundreds of years."