Beyond the potential damage of secrets revealed, Ottawa and Washington are bracing for a leak of classified documents with another concern: that the undiplomatic private chatter of diplomats could paint an embarrassing portrait of how our neighbour views us.
WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing website that has already released masses of secret U.S. documents on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is sending foreign capitals into a tizzy with a promise of an even bigger leak of U.S. diplomatic cables from embassies around the world.
The potential that secrets ranging from war tactics to intelligence-sharing could be revealed sparked concerns Thursday from Defence Minister Peter MacKay and U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson, who said it was an irresponsible attempt to "wreak havoc" and "destabilize global security" that will put lives at risk.
But the fear of real damage is accompanied by another concern in Ottawa - that snippets of private talk by U.S. diplomats might include sharp words that could stick in the mind of a Canadian public that is often sensitive to how they are seen in American eyes. Ottawa officials worry about references to a Canadian inferiority complex, biting criticisms or belittling comments.
Mr. Jacobson, who called Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon on Wednesday to warn him some documents might relate to Canada, declined in an interview Thursday to comment on what secrets might be revealed, insisting he doesn't know what WikiLeaks has, and can't talk about classified documents.
But he conceded there might be some "locker-room conversation" in the confidential, candid assessments diplomats send on a day-to-day basis to Washington that they'd rather not see in a headline.
"Most of the time, cables, whether it is here in Canada or elsewhere around the world, reflect the author's personal opinions, and don't represent the policies of the government of the United States," Mr. Jacobson said. "But I will say this: These were documents that were meant to be private, and when they are put on the front page of a newspaper, that has impact.
"I was a lawyer for 30 years before I got here, and I have a lot of experience over the years of looking at documents that people send back to each other, perhaps on an informal basis. And oftentimes there's, let's call it locker-room conversation in them that probably they would rather not see on the front page of a newspaper," he said. "I don't know what's in these, and I'm not going to comment about them, but that's oftentimes the case."
It's not yet clear how many of the documents will be cables about Canada, or what period they cover. But U.S. President Barack Obama's post-inauguration visit to Canada would certainly have sparked a flurry of briefing notes and cables, with U.S. diplomats' takes and the Canadian mindset.
Mr. Jacobson said Canadians should know that the United States doesn't have a better friend. "While I'm sure that everyone is sensitive about what others think of them, I think that Canadians understand the strength and the endurance of that relationship, particularly these days."
That relationship could be tested by embarrassing critiques, accounts detailing discussions with Canadian politicians, or state secrets.
In Ottawa, there is speculation that the documents could reveal private accounts of U.S. pressure on Canada to extend its military mission in Afghanistan, or criticisms that Canadian intelligence agencies, hamstrung by legal concerns, aren't reliable intelligence-sharing partners because they might reveal U.S. sources and feel unable to share wanted information.
Around the world, unconfirmed reports suggest that the documents will include U.S. diplomats' accounts of the corruption of foreign leaders, or covert U.S. support for Kurdish separatists in Iraq and Turkey.
Canadian government figures insist they have not seen the documents WikiLeaks will disclose, but Mr. MacKay said he will be concerned if they reveal elements of military operations.
"What I can tell you is if there's anything in there that endangers soldiers or speaks of operational detail, then I am worried," he said.
The Iraq war logs
THE RELEASE 400,000 classified U.S. documents about the war in Iraq.
THE REACTION The U.S. and Britain condemned the leak, saying it put lives at risk and dismissed the documents as raw snapshots of mundane events. Iraq's PM said the release amounted to political interference in his country.
THE FALLOUT The figures appear to contradict earlier claims that the U.S. did not keep records of civilians killed. The logs showed there were more than 109,000 violent deaths between 2004 and the end of 2009, including 66,081 civilians.
The Afghan war diaries
THE RELEASE 90,000 documents, covering the period between January, 2004, and December, 2009.
THE REACTION Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the release: "They might already have blood on their hands, the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family."
THE FALLOUT The leak revealed information on the deaths of civilians, increased Taliban attacks, and involvement by Pakistan and Iran in the insurgency.
- StaffReport Typo/Error