WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange talks to the media. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA
As the cables rolled out day by day, an ugly, and in many ways deranged, backlash took place in the US. A vengeful chorus came mostly from Republicans. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, darling of the unhinged right, denounced Julian Assange‘s “sick, un-American espionage” and came close to inciting his assassination: “Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaida and Taliban leaders? … He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.”
But it was Senator Joe Lieberman, Senate homeland security committee chairman, a foreign policy hawk and maverick Democrat, who was the most practical attack dog. Lieberman described the leak in apocalyptic terms as “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”.
He stopped short of denouncing Assange as a “terrorist” but said: “It’s a terrible thing that WikiLeaks did. I hope we are doing everything we can to shut down their website.”
Contrary to the bloodcurdling claims made in public about the crimes of WikiLeaks, senior state department officials appeared to have concluded by mid-January that the WikiLeaks controversy had caused little real and lasting damage to American diplomacy. Reuters news agency reported on 19 January 2011 that in private briefings to Congress, top US diplomats admitted the fallout from the release of thousands of private diplomatic cables across the globe had not been especially bad.
One congressional official briefed on the reviews told Reuters that the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers. “I think they want to present the toughest front they can muster,” the officials said.
The tacit retraction of Hillary Clinton’s lurid claim that the release of the WikiLeaks cables had been an attack on the entire international community followed the equally low-key admission that Assange did not in fact have “blood on his hands” from the release of the earlier Iraq and Afghan war logs.
That may have been thanks to the learning curve imposed on Assange by his mainstream partners. Assange eventually agreed to make extensive redactions in what he published on the Wikileaks site, to prevent reprisals against individuals. But his initial attitude had been very different.
Declan Walsh, the Guardian’s Islamabad correspondent, recalls one tense evening: “We went out to a Moorish restaurant, Moro, with the two German reporters. David Leigh broached the problem again with Julian. The response floored me. ‘Well, they’re informants,’ he said. ‘So, if they get killed, they’ve got it coming to them. They deserve it.’ There was, for a moment, silence around the table. I think everyone was struck by what a callous thing that was to say.”