The State Department severed its computer files from the government's classified network, officials said Tuesday.
WASHINGTON — The State Department severed its computer files from the government’s classified network, officials said Tuesday, as U.S. and world leaders tried to clean up from the embarrassing leak that spilled America’s sensitive documents onto screens around the globe.
By temporarily pulling the plug, the U.S. significantly reduced the number of government employees who can read important diplomatic messages. It was an extraordinary measure, prompted by the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of those messages this week by WikiLeaks, the self-styled whistle-blower organization.
WikiLeaks, meanwhile, said it came under a forceful Internet-based attack on Tuesday morning, making it inaccessible for hours to users in the U.S. and Europe.
The site appears to have responded by switching its main hosting base from Sweden to the U.S., making it available again. On Tuesday, traffic to the site went to Amazon.com‘s server-for-rent service, based in the U.S.
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The site, which is devoted to releasing anonymously submitted documents, also came under attack Sunday, but Tuesday’s attack appeared to be more powerful.
Calls to Seattle-based Amazon.com were not immediately returned.
Sunday’s attack didn’t stop the publication of stories based on messages leaked from the State Department in several major newspapers. WikiLeaks had given the media outlets prior access to the diplomatic cables to publish in conjunction with their Sunday release on its site.
The cables, many of them classified, offer candid, sometimes unflattering assessments of foreign leaders, ranging from U.S. allies such as Germany and Italy to other nations like Libya, Iran and Afghanistan.
The documents revealed that the State Department asked its diplomats to collect DNA samples and other personal information about foreign leaders.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley sought to reassure the world that U.S. diplomats were not spies, even as he sidestepped questions about why they were asked to provide DNA samples, iris scans, credit-card numbers, fingerprints and other deeply personal information about leaders at the United Nations and in foreign capitals. Diplomats in the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, for instance, were asked in a secret March 2008 cable to provide “biometric data, to include fingerprints, facial images, iris scans, and DNA” for numerous prominent politicians.
The possibility that U.S. diplomats pressed for more than “open source” information has drawn criticism at the U.N. and in other diplomatic circles over whether U.S. information gathering blurred the line between diplomacy and espionage.
“What worries me is the mixing of diplomatic tasks with downright espionage. You cross a border … if diplomats are encouraged to gather personal information about some people,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
In an online interview with Time magazine from an undisclosed location, the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, called on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to resign because of the cables asking diplomats to gather intelligence.
“She should 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 the international covenants to which the U.S. has signed up,” he said.
Crowley, at the State Department, showed disdain for Assange.
“I believe he has been described as an anarchist,” he said. “His actions seem to substantiate that.”
WikiLeaks has not said how it obtained the documents, but the government’s prime suspect is Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is being held in a maximum-security military brig on charges of leaking other classified documents to WikiLeaks. Authorities believe Manning defeated Pentagon security systems simply by bringing a homemade music CD to work, erasing the music, and downloading government secrets onto it.