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WASHINGTON – Stung by the release of hundreds of diplomatic cables, the Obama administration on Monday ordered an investigation of the handling of dispatches that reveal behind-the-scenes diplomacy in candid detail that has embarrassed both the United States and foreign powers.

Jack Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, directed a government-wide review of data-handling, saying Sunday's disclosures by the WikiLeaks website were unacceptable.

Atty. Gen. Eric Holder told reporters at the Justice Department that authorities would prosecute if violations of federal law were found.

Worried that the disclosures will disrupt ties and make other governments wary of candid exchanges with U.S. officials, the administration is trying to demonstrate that it has not lost control of its confidential information. U.S. authorities believe the information was stolen by a disgruntled Army private, Bradley Manning, who had access to data networks as a low-level intelligence analyst and is now awaiting a court martial.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who made calls to numerous world leaders in recent days to try to soften the impact of the disclosure, sought to downplay the significance of the dispatches.

"Our official foreign policy is not set through these messages, but here in Washington," she told reporters.

Clinton felt the impact of the controversy personally on Monday, as she met with the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who told reporters that he intended to bring the WikiLeaks matter into their discussion.

One of the cables quotes an American official saying that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is surrounded by a "cabal of incompetent advisers."

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) declared that the State Department should designate WikiLeaks as a foreign terrorist organization.

The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, described the leaks as "the Sept. 11 of world diplomacy." A cable said unflatteringly that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had become the "mouthpiece" in Europe for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Iraqi officials reacted to a communiqué that quoted Saudi King Abdullah calling Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki a "liar" and saying he would not support him.

Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, said the cables' release was "damaging" and could hurt the long-delayed effort to form a new government.

"There is a mere chance for government formation, and it's poisoned by all these reports," Zebari said.

Several cables demonstrated grave concerns among Iran's neighbors about whether the goal of Tehran's nuclear program is to build a weapon, with some foreign leaders calling on the U.S. to take military action.

But Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, brushed off the leaking of the cables as being orchestrated by the United States to pit Arab nations against his government.

"We are smart enough not to fall in this trap," Ahmadinejad said. "We will not even look at these documents."

paul.richter@latimes.com