Newly leaked U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks show senior U.S. officials in Africa were highly critical of China's economic policies on the continent and made sometimes embarrassing comments about African leaders and crises. The revelations have angered U.S. officials who say they are illegal and dangerous.
The secret communications, released Thursday by the online website WikiLeak, received widespread coverage in the news media.
What secret cables said
One leaked cable quoted a senior U.S. diplomat as calling China an "aggressive economic competitor" in Africa with no morals and saying human rights groups criticize Beijing for supporting authoritarian regimes on the continent.
Chinese investment in Africa has grown from $200 million to $1.5 billion in 10 years and some 1600 Chinese businesses are said to be operating on the continent. Beijing says it is supporting African development and does not interfere in local politics.
WikiLeaks also published cables outlining a plan three years ago to peacefully ease Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe from power.
In another document written early this year, a diplomat in Nigeria worried that the West African nation was teetering on the brink of a constitutional crisis as its then-president, the late Umaru Yar'Adua lay in a semi-coma due to illness. He subsequently died and was succeeded by then-vice president, Goodluck Jonathan.
US condemns leaks
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley Wednesday reiterated U.S. condemnation of the leaks and its founder, Julian Assange.
"In our view he has done substantial damage to the interests of the United States and the interests of other countries around the world," said Crowley.
Retired U.S. Diplomat Brooks Specter, who is now a Contributing Editor to South Africa's Daily Maverick online journal, said the leaked material, if authentic, provided fairly accurate insights into how embassies operate.
"These aren't insights that the U.S. government was desperate to hand out to people because a lot of it is material which makes judgments, makes judgments about a foreign leader or about circumstances, a situation, in a foreign country," said Specter. "But it seems to me that most of these judgments really look like people are straining hard to come to grips with something which they don't always have all the pieces to yet."
WikiLeaks also published documents in which a U.S. diplomat in Kenya warned that the East African nation could descend into violence worse than that following the elections three years ago unless reforms were accelerated and corruption addressed.
Another document alleged that illegal diamond trading in Zimbabwe had led to the deaths of thousands of people while enriching senior members of its political elite.
Some cables provided frank, if sometimes unflattering, impressions of leaders such as South African Presidents Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki and Zimbabwean leaders Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai.
Former U.S. diplomat Specter says a document identifying a possible informant could endanger that person's life, as U.S. officials claim. And he says the individuals who leaked the documents were clearly violating their security clearances and a number of laws.
But opinions differ over the appropriateness of publishing such documents once they have been leaked. Most people favor freedom of information. And diplomats and politicians themselves routinely provide sensitive information to journalists to further their interests.
Specter says because of the evolution of communications the world is at a crossroads in the way secret information is handled.
"No matter who you are, no matter what institution you represent, you're probably now beginning to wonder whether or not what you put in your documents is going to be read by millions on the front page of Der Spiegel [magazine] or the New York Times [newspaper] next month," said Specter. "And that's going to change the nature of diplomatic discourse. It's going to change the way the U.S. government, and others, treat its secret material."
He notes that following the terrorist attacks in 2001 U.S. officials broadened access to sensitive material within the government in order to improve communications between security agencies. Since the WikiLeaks revelations such access has been considerably tightened.