The United States was catapulted into a worldwide diplomatic crisis on Monday, with the leaking to various international media of more than 250,000 classified cables from its embassies, many sent as recently as February this year.
At the start of a series of daily extracts from the US embassy cables Arab leaders are privately urging an air strike on Iran and that US officials have been instructed to spy on the UN leadership.
These two revelations alone would be likely to reverberate around the world. But the secret dispatches also reveal Washington's evaluation of many other highly sensitive international issues.
These include a shift in relations between China and North Korea, high-level concerns over Pakistan's growing instability, and details of clandestine US efforts to combat al Qaeda in Yemen.
The cables contain specific allegations of corruption, as well as harsh criticism by US embassy staff of their host governments, from Caribbean islands to China and Russia.
The material includes a reference to Putin as an "alpha-dog" and Hamid Karzai as being "driven by paranoia", while Angela Merkel allegedly "avoids risk and is rarely creative". There is also a comparison between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler.
The state department's legal adviser has written to the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and his London lawyer, warning that the cables were obtained illegally and that the publication would place at risk "the lives of countless innocent individuals … ongoing military operations … and co-operation between countries".
The electronic archive of embassy dispatches from around the world was allegedly downloaded by a US soldier earlier this year and passed to WikiLeaks. Assange made it available to the Guardian and four other news organisations: the New York Times, Der Spiegel in Germany, Le Monde in France and El País in Spain.
The US embassy cables are marked "Sipdis" - secret internet protocol distribution. They were compiled as part of a programme under which selected dispatches, considered moderately secret but suitable for sharing with other agencies, would be automatically loaded on to secure embassy websites, and linked with the military's Siprnet internet system.
More than 11,000 are marked secret, while around 9,000 of the cables are marked noforn (no foreigners).
More than 3 million US government personnel and soldiers, many extremely junior, are cleared to have potential access to this material, even though the cables contain the identities of foreign informants, often sensitive contacts in dictatorial regimes. Some are marked "protect" or "strictly protect".