By Richard Engel, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent
Aside from the diplomatic damage the WikiLeaks dump of more than 250,000 confidential U.S. State Department cables has created, security experts say they also provide a treasure trove of information that could be exploited by terrorists and organized crime syndicates.
The documents, which claim to have been redacted for safety, reveal much more than the often-embarrassing opinions of American diplomats of world leaders.
From a security point of view, they also reveal who American officials met, where, and in many cases, for how long. This is the type of information that hit teams spend months, or even years, trying to gather by conducting risky and expensive surveillance. Now the information is online in clearly marked, easily sorted files.
Not just a dinner party guest list
For example, a cable from Abu Dhabi describes a dinner hosted by Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
He was having the dinner party for the former American CENTCOM Cmdr. John Abizaid. The cables listed a half-dozen senior UAE military officials who attended the dinner.
This is not just a guest list. WikiLeaks exposed the inner circle of the UAE’s military and intelligence command. The guest list identified the power players, information that could be useful to someone who wants to harm the UAE, or change the nation’s policy.
While the names and titles of the security officials are known (they can be looked up on Google), revealing who gathers for a top-level meeting shows who is really important. There are many security officials in the UAE. The dinner list identifies which ones are critical.
It would be like releasing the names of the people who gather in the White House situation room at the time of a crisis.
Another cable described how Jordan’s king, the UAE’s army chief and the Duke of York Prince Andrew often go hunting together.
“Jordanian King Abdullah II is a close friend of UAE Armed Forces Chief of Staff Muhammad bin Zayid Al-Nahyan. The two frequently hunt – in Morocco and Tanzania – joined, more often than not, by England's Prince Andrew.”
No doubt the security advisers of all three leaders are now suggesting that those trips stop, or be moved to new locations. If they’re not, they should. There can’t be that many hunting areas in Morocco and Tanzania suitable for a king and prince. It wouldn’t be difficult to figure out where they would go. The cables said the group travels frequently.
“Understanding who is included in a leadership meeting and where the leaders frequently travel is the type of ‘actionable intelligence’ we often seek on our enemies,” said former top White House counter-terrorism adviser and NBC News security analyst Roger Cressey. “What WikiLeaks has done is give any adversary of a U.S. ally that kind of actionable intelligence. It is beyond irresponsible.”
In a statement, Sen. Joe Lieberman also said the WikiLeaks release puts lives at risk.
“It is an outrageous, reckless, and despicable action that will undermine the ability of our government and our partners to keep our people safe and to work together to defend our vital interests,” said Lieberman. “Let there be no doubt: the individuals responsible are going to have blood on their hands.”
A statement from the British Foreign Office said the cables “can damage national security, are not in the national interest and, as the U.S. has said, may put lives at risk.”
Quirks reveal patterns
That includes the safety of some officials who have had troubled relations with the United States. The quixotic Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi certainly has enemies who want to kill him (the United States bombed his house in 1986), was exposed in details that would make his security entourage sweat bullets.
The leaked cables said Gadhafi won’t fly longer than eight hours, won’t fly over water and won’t stay above the first floor of hotels. I’m surprised they didn’t list what side of the bed he sleeps on.
The cables also explain how Gadhafi relies less on his female bodyguards. Back when white suits with epaulets and military hats were in style (at least in style with Gadhafi), the Libyan leader would always be accompanied by a troop of female guards. He said potential attackers would be confused and disoriented by their beauty and sex appeal. Now, the cables said Gadhafi “cannot travel without” a “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse, whom they name.
During WWII and the Cold War, this kind of intelligence – the oddities, quirks, and most importantly, the patterns of world leaders – was gathered by intelligence agencies. It still is. You don’t need to know how to get to a world leader. You need to know who can. It goes on and on.
The cables describe who attended meetings with Gen. Petraeus in Beirut, a city where the government has little control over militants and kidnappers.
They identify the key counter-terrorism officials in Arab countries, and their traveling companions.
In a statement regarding WikiLeaks, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said, “By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.”
The WikiLeaks release of diplomatic cables will undoubtedly cause many officials, kings, ministers, presidents and princes to review, if not change, their personal security procedures. While the Wikileaks cables contain fascinating insights into political meetings and backdoor dealings, they can also be mined for details used to harm the people named in them.
More reporting from Richard Engel on other WikiLeaks: WikiLeaks' Iraq files: 400,000 insights into war