WASHINGTON – Foreign powers are pulling back from their dealings with the U.S. government since hundreds of classified diplomatic cables wound up on the Internet, State and Defense department officials said Tuesday.
The document dump by WikiLeaks included detailed and blunt exchanges between foreign and U.S. officials on such politically sensitive matters as a top-secret U.S. bombing campaign in Yemen.
The Obama administration has decried the release of the classified documents as criminal, and refuted assertions by anti-war WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that he should enjoy the same free-speech protections given to media organizations.
Spokesmen for the Pentagon and State Department declined to provide detailed evidence that U.S. foreign relations had been harmed by the massive leak, including what countries might be limiting their contact.
Both cited recent exchanges with foreign officials that suggested some had suddenly grown reluctant to trust the U.S. with their secrets.
"We have already seen some indications of meetings that used to involve several diplomats and now involve fewer diplomats," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
"We're conscious of at least one meeting where it was requested that notebooks be left outside the room," Crowley told reporters.
Similar comments were made by the Defense Department, where spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said the military had seen foreign contacts "pulling back" and that "generally, there has been a retrenchment."
"Believing that the U.S. is not good at keeping secrets and having secrets out there certainly changed things," Lapan said.
Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates predicted that any damage would be fairly modest and that other countries were unlikely to cut ties with the U.S. because of the security infraction.
"The fact is governments deal with the United States because it's in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us and not because they think we can keep secrets," Gates said.
Other "governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us," Gates said.
Crowley said the extent of the damage remains to be seen. The State Department expects the disclosure will complicate U.S. diplomatic efforts "for a period of time" and that the reaction will vary "country by country, government by government," he said.
"Obviously, it will be something that we will be watching to see if particular diplomats are frozen out in countries depending on their pique over what has been revealed," he said.
WikiLeaks evoked the ire of the U.S. government last spring when it posted a gritty war video taken by Army helicopters showing troops gunning down two unarmed Reuters journalists. Since then, the organization has leaked some 400,000 classified war files from Iraq and 76,000 from Afghanistan that military officials say included names of U.S. informants and other information that could put people's lives at risk.
The latest leak involved private diplomatic cables that included frank U.S. assessments of foreign nations and their leaders. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for example, was described as turning a blind eye to corruption and releasing suspected drug dealers because of their powerful connections.
In one particularly damaging cable, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh tells top NATO commander Gen. David Petraeus that his country would continue to pretend that American missile strikes against a local al-Qaida group had come from his military forces.
The Yemeni government, seen as having only shaky control of a population where anti-U.S. sentiment runs high, has since issued a denial.
Bradley Manning, a young Army intelligence analyst who had been stationed in Iraq, is suspected of downloading the files using a Lady Gaga CD and a portable computer memory stick, then providing them to WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks' Assange has said the information provides valuable insight into the dubious work of the U.S. government by showing that it spies on its allies and ignores human rights abuses.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Bradley Manning's name.)