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NYT Reporter Defends Publishing WikiLeaks Cables

Speaking Tuesday on Fox news, Sen. Joe Lieberman suggested that The New York Times' should be investigated for publishing leaked diplomatic cables. The New York Times' chief Washington correspondent, David Sanger, responds -- and explains what the documents reveal about foreign diplomacy.

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NYT Reporter Defends Publishing WikiLeaks Cables

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Yesterday, Senator Joe Lieberman suggested that the Justice Department
should look into whether the New York Times broke any laws in accepting
and publishing WikiLeaks documents.

We're going to get a reaction from the New York Times chief Washington
correspondent, David Sanger, one of the reporters who has been reading
and writing about the leaked diplomatic cables. We'll also talk about
revelations within those cables. Sanger is the author of the book "The
Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American
Power."

The Times is reporting that the Justice Department is looking into
possible offenses that the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, could
be charged with in the U.S. Assange is facing an extradition request
from Sweden, where he's wanted on charges of sexual offenses pertaining
to his encounters with two women. Yesterday, Assange surrendered to
British authorities and was denied bail.

David Sanger, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me quote what Senator Lieberman
said yesterday. He said: I certainly believe that WikiLeaks has violated
the Espionage Act. But then what about the news organizations, including
the Times, that accepted it and distributed it? To me, the New York
Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship, and whether they
have committed a crime, I think that bears a very intense inquiry by the
Justice Department.

Now David Sanger, I'm sure you had legal advice before publishing at the
Times. What were you told about whether you would be breaking any laws
if you published WikiLeaks documents?

Mr. DAVID SANGER (Chief Washington Correspondent, New York Times;
Author, "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges
to American Power"): You know, we did have a lot of legal advice, and we
had a lot of internal debate because this is never an easy decision to
publish national security information. The Times wants to go do it
responsibly, and I think at the end of this process, what we did was
responsible, it was legal, and it was important for a democratic
society.

You know, I've covered Senator Lieberman for a long time, and I've
learned a lot from him about national security. I think that on this
issue of journalism, I think we just disagree because the Times knew
that this material was going to be out there anyway.

We didn't get the initial leak. It came to us through whoever gave it to
WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks gave it to The Guardian in London. The Guardian
gave it to us. It was out there, and the question was not whether the
world would learn about it.

The question was whether it would be released in a manner and whether it
would be interpreted in a way that readers around the world had expected
the New York Times to deal with major news events, that is put it in
perspective and explain it and explain what it means to the United
States and to citizens around the world.

GROSS: Were you surprised to hear that Senator Lieberman had suggested
the Justice Department investigate the New York Times?

Mr. SANGER: No, in fact, I had suspected that we would probably hear
more calls like this at various points in this debate, and I think most
people recognized that what the Times was trying to do was make sense of
an enormous mass of material that was out in the world anyway.

If we had done nothing, if we had ignored it, I think it would have
looked strange. I think that also would have been irresponsible. It is
the responsibility of American journalism, back to the founding of this
country, to get out and try to grapple with the hardest issues of the
day and to do it independently of the government.

And we can argue for a long time whether this material ever should have
leaked, and I have a lot of concerns about the leakage of classified
information. I've also got a lot of concerns about the over-
classification of information. But the fact of the matter was that this
information's out there.

GROSS: Let me quote something that Julian Assange just wrote in an op-ed
piece that was published in Australia, and he is an Australian citizen.
He wrote: WikiLeaks is not the only publisher of U.S. embassy cables.
Other media outlets, including Britain's The Guardian, the New York
Times, El Pais in Spain and Der Spiegel in Germany have published the
same redacted cables, yet it is WikiLeaks, as the coordinator of these
other groups, that has copped the most vicious attacks and accusations
from the U.S. government and its acolytes.

The Australian Prime Minister Gillard and U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton have not had a word of criticism for the other media
organizations. That is because the Guardian, the New York Times and Der
Spiegel are old and large, while WikiLeaks is as yet young and small.

Do you consider Julian Assange a journalist?

Mr. SANGER: I don't, and the reason is that I believe what journalists
do is not only dig out information but filter it, explain it, put it in
context, do those things that you've come to expect of the New York
Times and other great American newspapers and other media organizations
for many decades. That's a very different thing from simply downloading
a computer system and throwing it out onto the World Wide Web.

He's coming to this with a political motivation. As journalists at the
Times and elsewhere, we are not. We are coming at this to explain the
world. He was trying, just to use his own words, to embarrass the United
States and make clear that America's actions are different than its
rhetoric.

Well, in fact when you look through these documents, America's actions
are pretty consistent with its rhetoric.

GROSS: Now, on the one hand, the New York Times is contextualizing the
information in the WikiLeaks documents. On the other hand, can you make
the argument that the New York Times has really been a megaphone for
this leaked information and is making it a much bigger story than it
otherwise would have been?

Mr. SANGER: You know, Terry, I think you could argue that the New York
Times is making this a much more subtle story than it otherwise would
have been because by contextualizing it, to use your word, we are
explaining what's new here and what's not. We're explaining what's
important here and what's not. And we're filtering it out to try to
avoid the greatest harm to individuals, ongoing operations and so forth.

So yes, there is certainly a megaphone effect by virtue of the fact that
one of the world's larger news organizations is reporting on this. But,
you know, had we waited until this all just appeared on the Internet and
then tried to catch up with it, we would be a megaphone again, but we
would not have had any real time to digest it or certainly to think as
hard as we did about what should and shouldn't be redacted.

GROSS: My guest is David Sanger. He's the New York Times chief
Washington correspondent, and he's been reporting on what the WikiLeaks
documents reveal about the U.S.' diplomatic relations with China, Iran,
Pakistan and several other countries.

I found the whole issue of these WikiLeaks documents so confusing. I'm
captivated by what I'm reading, but at the same time, I'm worried that
diplomacy requires discretion, and these leaks are undermining the
possibility of discretion in diplomacy. Do you have any concerns that
the documents that you've been analyzing and writing about in the New
York Times will hurt diplomatic efforts in the future?

Mr. SANGER: You know, Terry, I think it's a very complicated question. I
think that the first instinct of many in the government was to say that
this would be enormously destructive, that diplomacy, as you say, relies
very much on discretion, on private sources, just as journalism as we
practice it here in Washington and around the world relies in many cases
on confidentiality and certainly the confidentiality of sources.

At the same time, we have heard some government officials, including the
Defense secretary, Robert Gates, make the case that the long-term
damage, he thinks, is pretty minimal, that in the end, nations talk to
the United States because of their own national interests and that while
some individual sources may be more hesitant, my guess is that over the
long run, probably diplomatic discourse will go back to something
approaching what it was before.

But we were concerned at the Times, and it's one of the reasons that we
went through so carefully to try to redact material that we thought
could be damaging to individuals or undercut ongoing operations. And we
even took the very unusual step of showing the 100 cables or so that we
were writing from to the U.S. government and asking them if they had
additional redactions to suggest.

Now, they had many to suggest that we weren't willing to go do,
including the conversations that took place between some U.S. diplomats
and some world leaders, and we thought those are not people who are at
any risk of harm if this is published. That was merely embarrassing to
U.S. diplomats or to the foreign leaders.

GROSS: Well, let me stop you there. It is a question of embarrassing or
damaging to our relations with that country? Because again, you know, so
much diplomacy is carried on through back channels or private
discussions. Diplomats have to save face. Heads of state of to save face
in order to, you know, in order to carry on diplomatic negotiations.

There's so much - it's such - it's a relationship that requires
discretion. So in addition to embarrassment, is it possible it's going
to damage relationships between our country and other countries?

Mr. SANGER: It could, and in some cases, it might improve them. But this
is not a new problem that faces journalists who write about foreign
policy and national security.

As journalists, we are not here to make a judgment about whether or not
a newsworthy story that explains how the U.S. engages with the world
will, in the end, be harmful or helpful, because it's a very difficult
thing to predict. And a good example of this was one of our first
stories, one that I worked on with two of my colleagues, about what Arab
leaders were saying about Iran.

And for years, we have heard that Arab leaders were as concerned about
the Iranian nuclear program as, say, the Israelis are. But it was a very
different thing to hear that from the Arab leaders themselves. And just
last week, I had a very senior member of the State Department say to me,
you know, in the end, it may be helpful that this came out because it
may free up the Arab press, which takes its signals from its own
leaders, to write about the Iranian nuclear program, which is something
that, by and large, they have not done.

GROSS: Now, you've written - you wrote very recently, that while
WikiLeaks made the trove of documents available with the intention of
exposing the U.S.'s duplicity, what struck many readers was that
American diplomacy looked rather impressive. Is that how it looks to
you?

Mr. SANGER: You know, Terry, when you go through these documents, what
is most impressive to my mind is that the U.S. government, by and large,
was doing in secret what it said it was doing in public statements. And
that was impressive.

The other thing that's very impressive about these documents is that you
see American diplomats at work trying to solve some of the thorniest
problems around the world, trying to deal with the violence in the
Sudan, trying to diffuse the potential for what could be a horrific war
on the Korean Peninsula. You see them trying, day by day, to organize a
set of sanctions against Iran, that some people think are a good idea
and others think are a bad idea, but which the Obama administration,
like the Bush administration before it, thought was much preferable to a
military strike on the Iranian facilities.

So it is impressive to see the dedication with which diplomats work each
day, and it was very impressive to see that they frequently were putting
world interests ahead of much more narrow interests.

GROSS: My guest is David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the
New York Times. We'll talk more about reporting on the WikiLeaks cables
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, David Sanger, is chief Washington correspondent for the
New York Times. He's been reading and reporting on the diplomatic cables
leaked by WikiLeaks.

Now, you just got back from China, and China is so pivotal right now
with its relationship to North Korea and North Korea's threats to South
Korea and the possibility of actual military confrontations, further
military confrontations breaking out there, the possibility of war.

And China is also very critical in the development of Iranian nuclear
weapons and the possibility of further sanctions against Iran. So let's
talk about China a little bit.

You say that China thinks of the United States as a fading world power.
Why does it think that of our country, and how is that affecting
China's, the way China deals with us?

Mr. SANGER: You know, Terry, I've been reporting in and around Asia for
more than 20 years and used to be the Times' bureau chief in Tokyo. And
what struck me most recently was that the Chinese, who used to be a lot
more discrete about making the point that they view the United States as
a fading power and view themselves as the rising power, today come out
and say it outright.

They make it very clear that they think that the U.S. is not only a
debtor nation but that since it is in debt to China, since the U.S.
bears a considerable responsibility for what triggered the global
financial crisis, that Washington is now in no position to be lecturing
to the Chinese either about economic management or about diplomatic
management around the world.

The other thing that's very notable is that really since January or
February, you have seen the Chinese take a far more assertive role in
describing their own region of influence throughout the Pacific region.

They have declared that the South China Sea is an area that they define
as one of their vital interests and have objected when others have tried
to navigate those seas. They objected, last week, when the U.S. moved
the USS George Washington carrier group into the Yellow Sea as part of
those military operations that were meant to be a deterrent to North
Korea after the shelling of the South Korean island. So you are seeing,
at least rhetorically, a new Chinese assertiveness of what their
territory should be.

GROSS: So President Obama called China's President Hu Jintao, Sunday
night, to urge China to discourage North Korea from further military
provocations against South Korea. Let's talk a little bit about China,
North Korea and South Korea.

You know, you've been analyzing WikiLeaks, and some of those WikiLeaks
documents pertain to South Korea and North Korea. And secret cables show
that South Korea was planning for the fall of the North Korean regime.
Why did South Korea think North Korea was going to fall?

Mr. SANGER: Well, they wouldn't be the first ones, Terry, who thought
the North Koreans were going to fall. Every American president since
Harry Truman has believed that North Korea would collapse on his watch,
and every one of them has been disappointed so far.

I was in Tokyo as a correspondent during the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And throughout Asia, there was a belief that North Korea, given its
poverty, given its ideological bankruptcy and given the forces of
globalization, couldn't survive another two or three years.

I took a long, 10-day train trip through North Korea in 1992, or so, and
wrote a New York Times magazine piece whose basic thesis was this
country would be gone in a few years. Well, you can see how wrong I was.

So it's not a strange assumption. What was interesting about the
WikiLeaks case, though, was that here we had, in just February of this
year, the American ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens, meeting
with the vice foreign minister, at the time, of South Korea. He's now
the national security advisor in South Korea. And basically, they were
talking about how one would get China, and to some degree Japan,
accustomed to the thought that the South Koreans would have control,
effectively, of all of the north.

And the discussion got pretty interesting. The South Koreans said, well,
of course, we would have to tell the Chinese that American forces would
never move north of the demilitarized zone. In other words, we wouldn't
move the 28,000 American forces that are in South Korea into what is now
North Korea and up toward the Chinese border. So that would be intended
to try to set aside the Chinese concerns that they'd have the U.S.
military right on their border.

And the South Koreans said that they recognized that they would have to
give Chinese companies a big stake in operations in North Korea, so that
it became profitable for the Chinese to have a South Korean-dominated
Korean Peninsula.

This is pretty advanced planning. I'm sure it's gone on before. What was
interesting about the WikiLeaks documents is we've got a real granular
sense of what those conversations are like.

GROSS: Is China not worried about North Korea's nuclear weapons?

Mr. SANGER: China is worried about North Korea's nuclear weapons, but
they're not as worried as we are. You know, President Bush, after he met
Jiang Zemin, the previous Chinese leader, at his ranch in Crawford in
2003, stepped out and said, you know, we're both committed to the same
thing, a completely denuclearized Korean Peninsula. And President Bush
would raise this as his first point whenever you talked about North
Korea with him.

Well, it's true. Both countries are technically committed to
denuclearization. But for China, it's well down the list of priorities.
What are the Chinese worried about? They're worried about an implosion
of North Korea that would send thousands of extremely impoverished North
Koreans over their border, to be fed in China, to be employed in China.

They are, of course, worried about losing the buffer zone between China
and South Korea and those American forces on the Korean Peninsula.

The nuclear concerns they have are well down the list. There's one
exception to this rule, Terry. A few years ago, in the course of
conversations between the United States and China, the U.S. gave the
Chinese a weatherman's map of what would happen if there was a nuclear
accident at the Yongbyon Nuclear Site, where North Korea has developed
many of its weapons and has its reactors. And, of course, many of these
maps show that with the prevailing winds, a nuclear cloud, if there was
an accident, would go right over the Chinese border. And from those who
were in the room at the time, I hear that really got China's attention.

GROSS: David Sanger will talk more about revelations from the WikiLeaks
documents in the second half of the show. He's chief Washington
correspondent for the New York Times and author of the book "The
Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American
Power." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're talking about revelations within the diplomatic cables leaked by
WikiLeaks. My guest, David Sanger, has been reporting on those cables
for The New York Times, where he's the chief Washington correspondent.
He's also author of the book, "The Inheritance: The World Obama
Confronts and the Challenges to American Power."

Cables released by WikiLeaks show that there was a far deeper military
and perhaps nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran that we
didn't know about before. What has been revealed about how North Korea
has helped Iran build its arsenal?

Mr. SANGER: Well, in this case, Terry, we've got some known cooperation,
some speculated cooperation and some mysterious cooperation. We've known
for years that the North Koreans have sold some of their missiles and
missile technology to Iran, and also to Syria and to Pakistan and many
other countries. This is the cash crop for the North Koreans.

What we learn from the documents, particularly a lengthy assessment of
Iranian missile capability, is that the United States believes that a
longer-range missile called the BM-25, it's based on an old Russian
nuclear submarine missile design, was sold by North Korea to Iran in
2005. They believe that the Iran's bought 19 of these missiles. Now,
this missile has never been tested in North Korea or Iran so we're not
certain of its range in their hands, and the Russians pushed back and
said they have some doubts about whether or not the missile had been
sold or even whether it really existed. Now that may be a self-
interested position because if it does exist it came from, as I said, a
leaked Russian design.

The concern here is that if the Iranians actually succeeded at
developing a nuclear weapon and then could shrink it to be small enough
to fit atop this missile or some other missiles that the Iranians have
been developing, then Iran would become not only a nuclear power but one
with considerable reach. Not only the reach to get to Israel but,
perhaps, to get into Western Europe, perhaps as far as Berlin.

Now the Russians say there's no evidence of this and it's a long way
away. But it does bolster President Obama's case for his new missile
defense policy, which would put a missile defense system sort of
floating offshore not far from Iran.

The big mystery right now is whether or not North Korea and Iran are
cooperating in the nuclear arena as well. We've never found any evidence
of that, but the North Koreans did reveal the other day to a visiting
American scientist, a large centrifuge facility that they built right at
their main nuclear complex at Yongbyon. American intelligence had missed
this. It appears that Chinese intelligence also missed this. They've
known that the North Koreans were working on the technology but did not
know that they were installing 2,000 centrifuges at the site. And this
centrifuge technology is very closely related to what Iran's been
working on for many years, and that naturally raises suspicions about
whether or not they are cooperating.

GROSS: Now at the request of the Obama administration, The New York
Times agreed not to publish the text of the cable on what Iran got, what
kind of weapons or material Iran got from North Korea. Without giving
away anything that you're not supposed to give away, could you tell us
why you decided not to publish that?

Mr. SANGER: The administration made a persuasive case that there was no
sense in telling the Iranians not only what the U.S. knew and suspected,
but what gaps there were in American intelligence about Iran's missile
capability. Now parts of this memorandum - it's a very long cable,
because it describes a daylong sessions with the Russians - parts of
this have been published elsewhere, including by WikiLeaks, so while we
were cautious with it and urged the European papers who were publishing
things, The Guardian and Der Spiegel among others to be very cautious
with it and they were, elements of it have gotten out anyway.

GROSS: So were you at those meetings with members of the Obama
administration, going over documents, deciding what to publish and what
not to?

Mr. SANGER: I was at...

GROSS: Hearing the Obama administration arguments about what not to
publish?

Mr. SANGER: I was at some of the meetings at which the Obama
administration made some requests. There were no decisions made there.
The Times took the requests back and considered them and Bill Keller,
our executive editor, and a number of other editors, made the decisions
in the end about where they would draw the line. I did hear some of the
administration's concerns along with several of my colleagues and with
Dean Baquet, who is our bureau chief here in Washington, and we asked a
number of questions so that we understood the nature of the State
Department's concerns, but the decisions were not ours.

GROSS: My guest is David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The
New York Times. We'll talk more about reporting on the WikiLeaks cables
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the WikiLeaks documents and what they reveal
about diplomacy. And my guest, David Sanger, is the chief Washington
correspondent for The New York Times. He has been reporting on and
analyzing a lot of the WikiLeaks documents for The Times. He's also the
author of the book, "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the
Challenges to American Power."

In talking about Iran's nuclear capability, you know, we all know that
Israel has been very worried about that for a long time. What was really
surprising from the WikiLeaks documents is how concerned some Arab
countries are about Iran's nuclear capability. Let me quote a couple of
things. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, his advice to America was to cut
off the head of the snake. The king of Bahrain told Americans the
Iranians' nuclear program must be stopped and that quote "the danger of
letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it." The crown
prince of Abu Dhabi warned about the danger of appeasing Iran and he
compared Ahmadinejad to Hitler.

But you wrote that if Israel bombed nuclear sites in Iran, the Arab
countries, the same Arab countries that condemned Iran would probably be
condemning Israel for bombing.

Mr. SANGER: There's a lot of doublespeak that goes on in the Middle East
when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program and there are many reasons
for that, Terry. One of them is that many of these Arab states, while
largely Sunni states, have significant Shia minorities that are very
sympathetic to Iran. The second is that in public most Arab leaders
would rather talk about their sympathy for the Palestinian cause than
their concerns about their Shia neighbors, the Iranians.

But we've known for years that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, many other
countries deeply fear that an Iran with a nuclear weapon - even if Iran
didn't use that weapon - would become the most powerful state within the
region. And what became clear from the WikiLeaks documents and what
really jumped out at us was how explicit they were about those concerns
when speaking in confidence to American officials. And in some cases,
how explicit they were that the United States should step in with
military action if Israel did not and that was implicit in many of those
quotations that you read.

Now what's missing from this picture? What's missing is what the Arab
states themselves might be willing to do to stand up to Iran. You don't
see any of these Arab leaders saying to the United States, you know, you
should take military action and we'll help you or we'll stand behind
you. It's very likely that if the U.S. ever did get to the point of
conducting military action, or if Israel did, these Arab states would
immediately step out and condemn the action. That will be much harder
now that WikiLeaks is out.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting. And so that's an example of what you mean
by about how it might actually be helpful in some ways to American
interest to have disclosed these documents.

Mr. SANGER: It could turn out that way. It's very difficult to predict
but certainly, I think that many in the Arab press will probably now
feel that it is no longer a taboo subject to take up the question of
whether an Iran that is nuclear-armed would be a good or bad thing for
the region.

GROSS: In reading the WikiLeaks documents and in the reporting you did
for your recent book "The Inheritance" about the war that the Obama
administration was inheriting, what did you learn about how close the
U.S. or Israel actually came to an airstrike against nuclear facilities
in Iran?

Mr. SANGER: You know, it's interesting. In the WikiLeaks documents,
which are by and large State Department documents, they are not
Intelligence Agency documents, there is very little discussion of U.S.
planning or even Israeli planning for a strike on the Iranian
facilities. But many of the foreign leaders who talk to American
diplomats ask the question what does the U.S. believe the reaction of
the Iranians would be if Israel or the U.S. struck? In some cases you
saw U.S. diplomats try to talk down this possibility saying, you know,
they don't see a chance of an American military action in the near
future.

Now military action is one thing, covert action is another. And when I
was doing the research for "The Inheritance," which was just at the end
of the Bush administration, one of the things that I found was that the
Israelis had come to President Bush in the summer of 2008 and asked for
the bunker-busting bombs and for other equipment including refueling
equipment that they would need in order to strike Iran at some point in
the future. And the Bush administration turned them down for almost all
of that.

The Israelis may have been asking because they thought whoever was
coming in as president at the time they made the request - President
Obama had not yet been elected - they probably figured would be less
sympathetic to their request than President Bush would be.

What the U.S. did start up during the Bush administration though was a
very active covert program against Iran. That program included efforts
to try to disrupt the electrical systems that would go into the Natanz
nuclear enrichment plant and efforts to get inside the computer systems
that are used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps which runs the
nuclear program.

Now it's a covert program. It's very hard to say how much of that has
been successful or not but it is interesting that just in the past few
months we've learned a lot about the Stuxnet worm, which is an
extraordinarily complex computer worm that somebody created - we don't
know if it was Israel, the United States, some other group, private
hackers - that is very specifically targeted, it appears, at hitting
electrical supplies for the centrifuges that run the Natanz enrichment
center.

GROSS: A lot of what we've been talking about pertaining to the
WikiLeaks documents has to do with the Obama administration. What do you
feel like you learned about the end of the Bush administration from
WikiLeaks?

Mr. SANGER: Well, you learned a number of things, Terry. The first is
that the American diplomatic corps was quite concerned about the damage
that had been done to the standing of the United States around the world
by the Bush administration, and particularly by the events that led up
to the Iraq War. There is a subtext to many of these cables,
particularly those that go through the last two or three years of the
Bush administration, that Iraq was sucking up so much of the attention
of the top leadership of the United States government that there was
insufficient attention being paid to festering problems elsewhere,
whether it was the Iranian nuclear program, which President Bush really
couldn't go after in a big way while he was wrapped up in the Iraq War.
There were concerns that the Korean Peninsula had spun out of control.
And throughout the documents there is concern that Afghanistan became
the stepchild of Iraq.

Now, many leaders in the Bush administration to this day, and President
Bush himself in his recently published book, deny that they ignored any
of these problems, particularly Afghanistan, while they were dealing
with the Iraq War. But it's clear from these documents that the whole
effort of trying to extract the U.S. from a war in Iraq, that became far
more complicated than anybody had anticipated on the way in, soaked up a
huge amount of the diplomatic and strategic energy of the United States
and we paid a price, not only in Iraq but around the world.

GROSS: Now in talking about - in writing about what WikiLeaks reveals
about Obama diplomacy - Obama-style diplomacy, you write it's a
complicated mixture of openness to negotiation, constantly escalating
pressure on a series of deadlines - some explicit, some vague. So what's
an example of how Obama's form of engagement is a complicated mixture of
openness to negotiation with escalating pressure behind the scenes?

Mr. SANGER: Well, I'd say, Terry, that the best example, the most vivid
one is Iran. You know, president said during the campaign that he would
engage the Iranians because the United States had not talked to Iran in
a serious and sustained way for 30 years since the hostage crisis.

And you may remember that during those debates, his opponent, Hillary
Clinton, said that he was naive if he thought that he could engage in an
unconditional way with rogue states. But as soon as President Obama came
in, what you see from the WikiLeaks documents is that while the
president did make opening initiatives to the Iranians - speeches that
he gave, radio broadcasts that were sent out over Persian-language
stations, secret letters to Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader -
that the U.S. was already working on Plan B.

It seems as if the Obama administration never really expected that
engagement would yield many results with Iran. And so from the first
months of the administration, they began working on a sanctions regime
that would be much stricter than anything that the Bush administration
had put together. And this comes together over a series of months until
the documents end in February of this year.

And, of course, in June of 2010, the United Nations passed its latest
round of sanctions against Iran, and the administration was ready and
imposed those very quickly, much faster than any had been imposed in the
Bush era. And that was because of all this groundwork they had been
doing secretly in the background for many months.

The other thing that becomes clear from the cables is that the U.S.
accelerated - during President Obama's years - the deployment of
antimissile defenses around the Persian Gulf. They got them into many of
the Arab Gulf states, playing off of those fears we discussed before by
Arab leaders that Iran could get both nuclear weapon capability and a
greater missile capability.

GROSS: As The New York Times chief Washington correspondent, I'm sure
you have a lot of sources who are in the diplomatic corps. What are your
sources in the diplomatic corps telling you about the impact of
WikiLeaks on their work?

Mr. SANGER: Well, many of them are quite distressed, as you would
imagine. And I've had a lot of painful conversations with people who
I've known and interviewed professionally for many years. Many of them
have said that they are concerned that no foreign leaders will ever
again have an honest conversation with the United States. Many are
worried about mid-level sources who they fear will not talk again for
fear that their names would appear in future documents that could get
leaked in some other way.

You know, we're in a new technological age where things can get copied
electronically so easily, that many of these sources are concerned about
their own futures.

But I have had a few who have expressed delight that Americans saw the
hard kind of work that diplomats do, and you saw Secretary of State
Clinton talk about this at the end of last week. And a few of them have
mentioned some cases where they think that the publication of the cables
may be helpful. We discussed one involving Iran, but let me give you
another example. A very senior American diplomat said to me just the
other day that he thought that the publication of the cables concerning
China's increasing use of cyber weapons against the United States might
help embarrass the Chinese into rethinking the strategy.

GROSS: We're talking about WikiLeaks documents and what they reveal
about American diplomacy. And my guest, David Sanger, is the chief
Washington correspondent for The New York Times and the author of the
book "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to
American Power."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll continue our conversation.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the WikiLeaks documents and what they reveal
about diplomacy. And my guest, David Sanger, is the chief Washington
correspondent for The New York Times. He has been reporting on and
analyzing a lot of the WikiLeaks documents for The Times. He's also the
author of the book "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the
Challenges to American Power."

You've been writing about the Korean Peninsula on and off for many
years. So I'm wondering what you think the possible scenarios are now.
Do you think there is a genuine likelihood of war breaking out between
North and South Korea?

Mr. SANGER: You know, Terry, I think that we are probably at one of the
tensest turning points on the Korean Peninsula that we've been in in
many, many years - at least since the 1994 nuclear crisis, which was the
closest that the U.S. and North Korea came to war, I think, in recent
times, and maybe back to the era of the end of the Korean War.

Why is that? There are a few things going on. First, there's a power
transition underway in North Korea. That's always a very dangerous time,
particularly at this moment when the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, who is
the son of the current North Korean leader and grandson of Kim Il Sung,
the founder of the country, is trying to establish his credentials with
the North Korean military.

And that may well explain why you see this recent rash of incidents, the
sinking of a South Korean ship that killed 46 people, the shelling of
this island. It may all be an effort to establish that the son is as
fervent about confronting the West - the United States and South Korea -
as his father and his grandfather were.

Now, usually what happens is the North Koreans stage an incident and
then pull back and see what happens and try to restart negotiations and
see what they can get out of the West. The Obama administration has come
in with a different philosophy. They have said we are not going to
engage in reopening old agreements, that North Korea has to make good on
its previous agreements. I think Secretary of Defense Gates put it best
last year when he said: I bought that horse once before. I'm not buying
it again.

And the question is could the North Koreans reacted that policy by
staging even more outrageous incidents, and could that lead to a
dangerous escalation? I think there's a real risk of that.

GROSS: You're The New York Times chief Washington correspondent. You've
been reporting on diplomatic relations for, you know, for a long time.
And now all of these, like, secret documents basically kind of fell into
your lap. So what's an example of a story that you had been covering
that you thought you got right, and now you see a completely different
version of it because you're reading these secret documents?

Mr. SANGER: You know, there are several, Terry, where I think it's worth
going back and taking a second look. The U.S. relationship with Russia
is one where what was happening on the surface, I think, was a bit
different from what was happening beneath the surface. If you read these
documents, it sure seems as if there had been an implicit deal brought
about by the Obama administration to at least temporarily suspended the
missile defense program in Poland that Russia objected to in return for
getting Russian help on Iran and on a number of other subjects.

There is a lot in the cables that looks at how difficult many foreign
leaders are to deal with, whether it is the American ambassador to
France's description of President Sarkozy's work habits, to the concerns
that many of the diplomats in Russia had about whether or not President
Putin is as fully engaged in day-to-day events as he should be, or where
some of his money may be hidden.

In fact, one of the themes that runs all through the documents is an
American effort to try to describe where world leaders hide their money.
And there is a case - there's one case of a very senior Afghan official
who is caught going through an airport with $52 million in cash - or so
the WikiLeaks document indicates, or the State Department cable
indicates. Now I'm not quite sure how you get $52 million into the
overhead on an airplane, but it sounds to me like that would be quite
difficult.

There's a real sense, a day-to-day sense of how threatening the world
seems to many in the State Department, and there are a couple of
examples in this archive of a daily sort of threat assessment where you
see concerns about terrorist plots in the making. And it's a reminder to
you of the degree to which American diplomacy not only changed after
9/11, but has changed even nearly a decade after 9/11, that it has
focused us much less on sort of grand strategic relationships and much
more on hunting down terror groups or debating whether or not
counterinsurgencies can be effective.

What worries me the most coming out of these is not only what's in the
documents, but what's not in the documents. You know, anybody who goes
to China on a regular basis I think sees the degree to which the Chinese
are challenging us - not only economically, but technologically. I spent
this weekend on a Chinese bullet train that was full of middle-class
Chinese just going home after a long weekend in Beijing. And this
network of bullet trains has built up in just a few years, while we're
still debating whether or not Amtrak can improve the speed of the Acela
by 2040.

And you do wonder from reading these documents whether or not we have so
preoccupied American national security policy with the concerns about
terrorism that the long-term issues of American competitiveness have
really not gotten the attention in the past 10 years or so that they
need.

GROSS: David Sanger, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SANGER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: David Sanger is chief Washington correspondent for The New York
Times, and has been reporting on the diplomatic cables leaked by
WikiLeaks. Sanger is the author of "The Inheritance: The World Obama
Confronts and the Challenges to American Power."

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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