US Embassy large

The US Embassy, London. Photo by Vertigoge on Flickr. Some rights reserved

The first batch of more than 250,000 secret and confidential diplomatic cables sent by US embassies around the world was published last night in the latest high-profile release by whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks.

Among the most significant revelations is evidence that Saudi Arabia urged the US to attack Iran and put an end to its nuclear programme - calling for the US to "cut off the head of the snake". Other sensitive cables include a directive under the name of Hilary Clinton suggesting that US diplomats spy on the UN leadership and criticism of UK military operations in Afghanistan.

The huge trove of embassy cables - 251,287 to be exact - was once again prepared in conjunction with media organisations around the world. The Guardian, Der Spiegel and the New York Times, all of which worked on the preparation of the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs, had advanced access to the cables along with France's Le Monde El and Spain's El Pais.

At 261,276,536 words, the embassy cables release is seven times the size of the Iraq war logs, previously the largest leak of classified government material.
The cables span almost half a century, the earliest dated 28 December 1966 and the most recent 28 February 2010, and orginate from 274 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions. The leak contains 15,652 documents classified secret and 101,748 classified confidential, but no top secret documents as these are not available through the SIPDIS system from which the embassy cables were copied.

SIPDIS stands for Siprnet Distribution and Siprnet is an acronym for Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, a system the US uses to help its various foreign embassies and arms of government share information easily. The source of this latest leak is thought to be Private First Class Bradley Manning, who told a fellow hacker earlier this year that he simply downloaded the information onto blank CDs while pretending to listen to music.

According to recent reports Manning was just one of around 2.5 million military personnel - including low ranking officers - who had access to the SIPDIS system. Manning is currently being held by the US government for his suspected involvement in the leaking of the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs.

Bracing themselves for embarrassing revelations about their treatment of allies, US state department officials spent much of last week briefing world leaders including David Cameron about what they expected the cables to contain. On Friday, newspaper editors around the UK recieved a DA (defence advisory) Notice from the Ministry of Defence, requesting that they seek advice on any material they intended to publish from the WikiLeaks cache.

The DA Notice is non-binding, meaning it cannot force editors to surrender or refrain from publishing sensitive material, it merely advises that they should consult the Ministry of Defence before publication.

According to an AFP report, WikiLeaks founder and editor-in-chief Julian Assange spoke via video link to reporters in Jordan yesterday about the difficulties facing the US state department: "They're in a rather unusual difficult position where it is not sure precisely what is going to be revealed. So it has been treading this rather thin line on briefing its allies on what it thinks we are going to reveal."

Correspondence between Assange and the legal adviser to the US State Department Hongju Koh published by the New York Times reveals that Assange contacted the US ambassador in London, Louis Susman on Friday to offer the government the chance to nominate particular records it felt should be redacted for safety reasons.

Assange's offer was rejected however, with Hongju Koh warning that: "We will not engage in a negotiation regarding the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained US government classified materials."

Shortly before last night’s publication, WikiLeaks claimed via Twitter that the site was under a kind of cyber attack known as a distributed denial of service (DDOS). The site, which is expected to publish the cables in batches over the course of the next week, remained unavailable for the majority of the evening.

The material was widely available elsewhere however from around 6:15pm, when two simultaneous tweets by WikiLeaks and the Guardian signalled the beginning of widespread coverage on many major news outlets. French digital journalism group OWNI.fr, which worked on preparing a platform to help people organise the huge number of reports in the Iraq war logs, has provided a similar service for the leak of the embassy cables.

The Guardian team working on the material was joined by FOI campaigner Heather Brooke, best known for her investigation of MPs expenses. According to the Guardian, Brooke obtained a copy of the cables through her own source before joining the newspaper's team.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger will be answering questions live online today at 4pm.

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