|WikiLeaks Cables Make Appearance in a Tale of Sunken Treasure and Nazi Theft|
By KIM SEVERSON and ROBBIE BROWN
New York Times
January 6, 2011
ATLANTA — The latest twist in the WikiLeaks tale is a plot worthy of a Tom Clancy thriller.
It is a story of international intrigue starring millions of dollars in sunken treasure, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the government of Spain and an Impressionist painting by Camille Pissarro of a rain-soaked Paris boulevard, believed to have been stolen by the Nazis.
Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Tampa, Fla., deep-sea treasure hunting company, is using classified cables from the State Department in its legal battle with Spain over who owns $500 million of gold and silver retrieved in 2007 from the wreckage of a Spanish galleon off the coast of Portugal.
The cables, part of more than 250,000 confidential documents obtained by WikiLeaks, include communications between the Spanish cultural minister and the American ambassador to Spain. First published in The Guardian of London and El País of Madrid, they are shrouded in the careful language of international diplomacy.
But Odyssey says they show that the ambassador offered to assist Spain in the fight over the sunken treasure. In return, Odyssey says, Spain was to help get a Madrid museum to return the 1897 Pissarro painting, valued at as much as $20 million, to a California family that says it was illegally taken by Nazis in Germany.
Odyssey has been fighting with Spain over the treasure in the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and the Justice Department have weighed in supporting Spain’s claim.
But Odyssey says the federal government has had a secret motive for getting involved in the case. On Wednesday, lawyers for the company filed a motion asking that, based on the cables, the court strike the Justice Department filing and require the government to note its interests in the case.
“Based on the evidence available to us so far, we are quite concerned,” said Greg Stemm, Odyssey’s chief executive. “The WikiLeaks cables are opening a window into the inner workings of international diplomacy for the general public, and it isn’t always pretty.”
A State Department spokesman declined to comment Thursday on the legal issue. But William Barron, a lawyer in New York who is representing Spain in the painting case, denied that there was a secret agreement between the Spanish and American governments.
“These are two totally separate issues,” he said. “Somebody is spinning this into a quid pro quo agreement, but the documents do not show that.”
The case has divided local and federal politicians, with a delegation of four congressmen from Florida urging Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Holder to support the treasure hunters.
“I am disturbed by the actions of the State and Justice Departments,” said Representative Gus Bilirakis, a Florida Republican. “These actions suggest that the U.S. government is ceding its sovereignty to foreign governments.”
Technology experts say the case is the first of many that are likely to draw on the trove of secret information available in the cables. The WikiLeaks documents have primarily been studied by journalists and government experts, but also have application to businesses and private citizens.
Lisa Lynch, a professor of journalism at Concordia University in Montreal and an expert on the WikiLeak phenomena, said the cables contain a wealth of facts about governments, commerce and people involved in dealings with both.
“We’ve really only seen the first wave of fallout from the information,” she said.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 8, 2011
An article on Friday about a legal dispute between American sunken treasure hunters and the government of Spain, in which the treasure hunters are using some of the confidential diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks, referred incorrectly to the release of those cables. WikiLeaks has 251,287 cables and has released all of them to several news organizations; it has not released all of them publicly. (According to the State Department, about 2,700 of the cables have been made public to date.) The error also appeared on Dec. 4 in an article about the cables and in an Inside The Times capsule summary for that article.)