FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - The State Department treated Pfc. Bradley Manning's disclosures to WikiLeaks as a "very, very serious crisis," an ambassador testified Monday, denying reports that he told Congress otherwise two years ago.
Facing more than a century in prison, Manning hopes to get mercy from the judge by playing up the limited impact caused by his disclosure of the biggest trove of confidential files in U.S. history.
These files included more than 250,000 State Department telegrams published under the name "Cablegate." They shed light on the Yemeni government's secret approval of U.S. drone strikes on its citizens, spying on the United Nations, a military contractor's alleged sexual abuse of a "dancing boy" in Afghanistan, and a world of private bickering among foreign powers. Amnesty International has credited the cables for fueling the so-called Arab Spring.
Ambassador Patrick Kennedy appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in March 2011 to discuss
the State Department's general response to the leaks. He took particular focus on how to maintain open channels of communication while pr eventing further disclosures.
But Reuters reported
two months earlier that an official, thought to be Kennedy, told Congress members behind closed doors in a classified session that the leaks were "embarrassing but not damaging."
Citing an anonymous official, Reuters reported that this official had said the State Department played up the alleged harm to fuel a prosecution of WikiLeaks.
Kennedy insisted on the stand Monday that he could "not recall" whether he said he wanted to play up damage to fuel a prosecution of WikiLeaks.
His memory also proved shaky as to the claim that he called the leaks "embarrassing but not damaging."
"I didn't say that," Kennedy testified.
Later he hedged: "I don't recall that having been said."
Kennedy told the court that the impact of the leaks was actually severe.
The State Department had treated the matter as a "crisis situation," and responded as it might to an airplane crash, the Haitian earthquake or the Japanese tsunami, Kennedy said.
Unlike those crises, however, the WikiLeaks disclosures were not confined to a particular region, but affected every region of the globe, Kennedy added.
"We never had a crisis that was so wide-ranging that it affected so many bureaus at one time," Kennedy said.
Per earlier witness testimony, Cablegate also differed from those man-made and natural disasters in that not a single death to an intelligence source could be traced to any of the leaks.
The State Department, which had been on notice that WikiLeaks had the cables since Manning's arrest in May 2010, rejected the website's offer to redact portions of those cables that could impact national security.
Manning's lead defense attorney David Coombs confronted Kennedy with remarks meant to undermine the ambassador's testimony that the leaks caused a "chilling effect" in the diplomatic community.
Coombs also rolled tape of televised interviews with high-ranking government officials that apparently contradict Kennedy's position today.
Echoing his remarks in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told CNN viewers that the reaction to the leaks was "fairly significantly overwrought," and that foreign officials would keep confiding in the United States as the "indispensible nation."
In another news segment, played in court, the State Department's then-information technology officer Alex Ross told viewers on a different program that "Cablegate" exposed "massive right-doing by American diplomats."
Kennedy said that he agreed with Gates and Ross' assessments, but insisted that they did not contradict his position that diplomats on the ground still face difficulties gaining trust form sources after the WikiLeaks disclosures.
As the State Department has never even acknowledged the cables to be authentic, various details associated with them have not been discussed in open court. Diplomats testifying in the court-martial have spoken of specific cables only in classified session.
Defense attorneys claim that the State Department's damage assessment from August 2011 supports the view that negligible harm occurred because of the leaks.
Kennedy dismissed the document as a "snapshot in time" that predated a second tranche of Cablegate releases. He claimed that the State Department declined to investigate the effect of these because it lacked the resources to follow up.
Coombs asked the 40-year diplomat: "You have a vested interest in making the State Department look good?"
"That's another question that I don't think is amenable to a yes or no answer," Kennedy replied.
Kennedy said he was proud of his diplomatic service but "had no desire to perjure myself or lower my standards by doing something that was inappropriate."
Coombs noted, however, that the State Department's inspector general is investigating Kennedy for allegedly doing just that.
The White House confirmed
that it is probing the ambassador for allegedly quashing an investigation against Belgian Ambassador Howard Gutman who was accused of soliciting sex with prostitutes and children.
Gutman was recently recalled from his post.
Kennedy called these claims "entirely false," and insisted that Gutman's recall had simply coincided with the end of a four-year tour of duty in Belgium.
The ambassador told Coombs that he would have to question the inspector general for more information on that issue.