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Included in the massive trove of classified diplomatic cables the website WikiLeaks began releasing on Sunday is evidence reportedly linking Chinese authorities to a massive computer hacking campaign that included a high-profile assault on Google nearly a year ago.
The whistleblower site released the materials in advance to its media partners, including the New York Times and several prominent European newspapers.
In an article previewing the revelations contained in the cables, the Times reported that one dispatch describes a Chinese source informing the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that China's Politburo had sanctioned the attack on Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) computer systems that put the Web giant in a standoff with the country's government.
The Google incident continued the concerted espionage and hacking efforts sanctioned by the Chinese government that had infiltrated the computer systems of the U.S. government, its allies in the West, along with U.S. businesses and the Dalai Lama, a campaign that dates back to 2002, according to the leaked cable.
WikiLeaks intends to release its cache of documents in phases over the next several months, giving news outlets and the public a chance to digest the material, which dates back to 1966 and casts light on a dizzying array of secret State Department activities in 274 embassies and other diplomatic outposts around the world.
"The subject matter of these cables is of such importance, and the geographical spread so broad, that to do otherwise would not do this material justice," the organization said.
All told, WikiLeaks says it has 251,287 leaked cables, the daily dispatches passed between U.S. diplomats. Of those, more than 15,000 were designated secret, and more than 101,000 confidential. The rest of the documents were unclassified.
The whistleblower site is releasing the documents over the vigorous objections of the White House and State Department, which are now scrambling to perform damage control to protect U.S. diplomats and their confidential sources, and to minimize the fallout as unflattering comments about foreign dignitaries begin to trickle out.
In a statement emailed to reporters, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the release "reckless and dangerous," and stressed the rough, fragmentary nature of daily diplomatic correspondence, noting that the cables should not be construed as statements of U.S. policy.
"By releasing stolen and classified documents, WikiLeaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals," Gibbs said. "We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information."
Jacob Lew, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, circulated a memo on Sunday directing the heads of all executive departments and agencies to undertake a review of their policies and procedures for handling classified information.
The Defense Department has already taken steps to restrict access to its IT systems, disabling the ability to copy data to removable devices, such as a thumb drive or a CD. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced this morning that she has undertaken a similar effort to lock down the electronic files within her department.
"People of good faith understand the need for sensitive diplomatic communications, both to protect the national interest and the global common interest," Clinton told reporters this morning. "Every country, including the United States, must be able to have candid conversations about the people and nations with whom they deal. And every country, including the United States, must be able to have honest, private dialogue with other countries about issues of common concern."