WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's spokesman on Wednesday labeled as "ridiculous" an assertion by the founder of WikiLeaks that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should resign if she was involved in asking U.S. diplomats to gather intelligence at the United Nations.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in an interview with NBC that Assange's statements "are both ridiculous and absurd." Clinton, he said, has done nothing wrong, and U.S. diplomats do not engage in spying.
During a conference of international leaders in Kazakhstan, meanwhile, Clinton endured repeated comments about the WikiLeaks disclosures raised as she met with foreign officials. Among those she met with was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had been described in U.S. diplomatic cables as "feckless" and a party animal.
"We have no better friend, we have no one who supports the American policies as consistently as Prime Minister Berlusconi has, starting in the Clinton administration, through the Bush administration, and now the Obama administration," she said at the meeting in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
The call for Clinton's resignation came from WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange in an online interview with Time magazine from an undisclosed location. Assange on Tuesday had called on Clinton to resign "if it can be shown that she was responsible for ordering U.S. diplomatic figures to engage in espionage in the United Nations" in violation of international agreements.
State Department officials said Tuesday that secret instructions to American diplomats to gather sensitive personal information about foreign leaders originated from the U.S. intelligence community but did not require diplomats to spy. Requests for DNA and biometric data on foreign officials were contained in leaked classified cables published by WikiLeaks.
"Secretary Clinton is doing a great job," Gibbs said in the interview on NBC's "Today" show. "The president has great confidence in and admires the work that Secretary Clinton has done."
The WikiLeaks matter was discussed in virtually all of Clinton's private one-on-one meetings with European leaders and foreign ministers during the summit meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Kazakhstan summit is the first such high-level meeting of the 56-nation group in 11 years.
"I have certainly raised the issue of the leaks in order to assure our colleagues that it will not in any way interfere with American diplomacy or our commitment to continuing important work that is ongoing," Clinton said. "I have not any had any concerns expressed about whether any nation will not continue to work with and discuss matters of importance to us both going forward."
A senior State Department official said that in her meeting with Berlusconi, the Italian leader raised the WikiLeaks matter, saying the publicity it had generated in Italy was a political problem for him. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe a private conversation, said Clinton expressed regret for the leak, calling it an illegal act.
The secret memos published by WikiLeaks also contain a note allegedly written by a U.S. diplomat in Kazakhstan detailing scenes of hard-drinking hedonism by several senior Kazakh ministers. The same report describes Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev — who met with Clinton Wednesday — as horse-obsessed and given to taking refuge from the often-frigid capital at a holiday home in the United Arab Emirates.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev said "this will have no bearing on our strategic relationship." He said embarrassment caused by the leak was a "normal price" that must sometimes be paid in the rough-and-tumble of international diplomacy.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who met Wednesday with Clinton, released a statement saying the "recent WikiLeaks disclosures would not affect our uniquely strong relationship."
In Washington, independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman said Wednesday that the international community should work together to stop WikiLeaks.
"This is a guy who's done terrible damage to our country and to a lot of other countries around the world," Lieberman said on the "Fox and Friends" program on Fox News. "The U.S. government and allied governments ought to be doing everything we can to close down WikiLeaks ... to try to get other countries to deny him access to servers, and I think we ought to be doing everything we can with our allies around the world to arrest this guy.
Burns reported from Astana, Kazhakstan.