K Street scrambles to deal with WikiLeaks fallout

K Street scrambles to deal with WikiLeaks fallout

Much has been written about the State Department’s intensive effort to deal with the release of secret diplomatic cables by the website WikiLeaks, but there is also a separate, massive effort to deal with the crisis by the embassies of foreign governments, aided by the paid lobbyists and consultants who represent them.

Working as a Washington lobbyist for a foreign country is usually a pretty sweet gig. These hired guns keep governments informed on anything in town that could affect their country’s diplomatic or political interests — for a hefty monthly fee, of course. Lobbyists apply added elbow grease when relevant legislation needs cheerleading on Capitol Hill. Consultants work harder when foreign officials are in town or there’s a pressing bilateral issue. But overall, crises are relatively rare.

Not this week, though: It’s all hands on deck on K Street, as firms are fielding frantic and constant requests from diplomats in foreign capitals, trying to make sense of the released and soon-to-be-released WikiLeaks State Department cables.

"When was the last time that every embassy and every consultancy in town went into crisis mode simultaneously," one consultant with clients in Europe and Asia told The Cable. This consultant said that his firm has been totally swamped since Sunday’s initial document dump with panicked emails, rushed conference calls, and requests for information.

"Basically you have governments that have absolutely no idea what’s in these documents. And everybody from senior officials to embassy personnel to Washington consultants are in a mad scramble to go through each new batch of documents as they come out to identify items that are potential vulnerabilities, paint their bosses in an unflattering light, or reveal some sensitive information," the consultant said. "The entire chain of command is in panic mode with every new release."

Compounding the difficulty of the damage control effort is the fact that nobody knows what new revelations are coming down the pike: Only 291 of the WikiLeaks promised 251,287 documents have been released thus far.  

At the embassies themselves, foreign diplomats are working day and night to try to collect as much information as possible about the coming leaks that reference their own country. One European diplomat said that his embassy had set up an around-the-clock monitoring system to make sure that if something breaks, they will be ready to handle it immediately.

"We are in 24-hour mode, somebody is always watching and waiting. When we [at the embassy] sleep they [back home] watch, and when they sleep we watch," the diplomat told The Cable.

Embassies have been getting apology phone calls from the State Department directly, but they aren’t waiting for the U.S. government to explain it all; they are working to figure out their exposure themselves or with their hired help.

One of the main tasks asked of diplomats, lobbyists, and consultants dealing with the crisis in Washington is to try and collect cables that haven’t been officially released yet, but are nonetheless being circulated inside the diplomatic community. Nobody knows exactly where all the extra cables coming from, but WikiLeaks has said it would give country specific cables to local foreign media outlets.

One Washington lobbyist who represents countries in the Middle East said that local press in several countries he works on is reporting on cables that haven’t yet been reported on by the media outlets who had advance access to the documents. The lobbyist speculated that foreign governments may also be selectively leaking cables they’ve come across in order to spin them in their own favor before WikiLeaks or local media has a chance to weigh in.

"New leaked cables are coming from weird sources, think tanks, the countries involved. There’s a lot of stuff being quoted in local press from cables that haven’t been released yet and I have no idea where they are coming from," this lobbyist said.

Getting out ahead of stories that are using information in unreleased cables is a big part of what Washington lobbyists and consultants are struggling to do this week. "It’s really hard to counter something that nobody has seen," the lobbyist said.

There’s some agreement among the beltway bandit community, however, that the disclosures in the cables, while perhaps embarrassing, aren’t likely to have significant effects on foreign embassy interactions with the U.S. government. "Our analysis is not whether it will have an effect on bilateral relations, but more what the impact will be on the public perception of that country," said one consultant who represents an embassy that was highlighted in the first tranche of leaks.

That said, the lobbyists and consultants interviewed for this article all had different ideas of how aggressive embassies and their Washington hired hands should be in mitigating the damage.

One consultant who represents countries not in the immediate line of fire right now argued that best approach is to lay low and let the media focus on the most salacious items.

"You just keep your head down and hope that there’s so much of it that you don’t get the worst of it," the consultant said.

One lobbyist was recommending to her clients not to try to use the leaked information in their dealings with the State Department going forward. "No sane government can use this to their advantage because it would hurt their relations with the U.S.," the lobbyist said.

Another consultant advocated a more aggressive approach. "There is a treasure trove of information and making strategic use of the information will be the job of thousands of people in Washington going forward," said this consultant, who represents a Latin American foreign government not yet implicated in the crisis.

It’s only day three of Cablegate and the WikiLeaks revelations show no signs of slowing down as of yet. And though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Kazakhstan for the OSCE summit, in Washington, the foreign embassies and their paid representatives are working overtime to unearth and mitigate documents that might be damaging. The levels of concern are all over the map, one lobbyist said.

"The spectrum goes from panicked to intrigued, optimistic to ape shit."