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A banquet of secrets

It is the historian’s dream. It is the diplomat’s nightmare. Here, for all to see, are the confidences of friends, allies and rivals, garnished with American diplomats’ frank, sometimes coruscating assessments of them. Over the next couple of weeks, newspaper readers around the world will enjoy a multi-course banquet from the history of the present.

The historian usually has to wait 20 or 30 years to find such treasures. But here, the most recent dispatches are little more than 30 weeks old. And what a trove this is.

It contains more than 250,000 documents. Most of those that I have seen, on my dives into a searchable database of the documents made by the Guardian newspaper, are well over 1,000 words long. If my sample is at all representative, there must be a total of at least 250 million words, and perhaps up to half a billion.

As all archival researchers know, there is a special quality of understanding that comes from exposure to a large body of sources, be it a novelist’s letters, a ministry’s papers or diplomatic traffic, even though much of the material is routine. With prolonged immersion, you get a deep sense of your subject’s priorities, character, thought patterns.

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Most of this material is medium- and high-level political reporting from around the world, plus instructions from Washington. It is important to remember that we do not have the top categories of secrecy here. But what we have is still a royal banquet.

It is small wonder the State Department is crying blue murder. Yet from what I have seen, the professional members of the U.S. Foreign Service have very little to be ashamed of. Yes, there are echoes of skullduggery at the margins, especially in relation to the conduct of the “war on terror” in the George W. Bush years.

For the most part, however, what we see here is diplomats doing their proper job: finding out what is happening in the places to which they are posted, working to advance their nation’s interests and their government’s policies.

In fact, my opinion of the State Department has just gone up several notches. In recent years I have found the American Foreign Service to be somewhat underwhelming, a bit dandruffy, especially when compared with other, more self-confident arms of American government, such as the Pentagon and the Treasury. But what we find here is often first rate.

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The man who is now the United States’ top-ranking professional diplomat, William Burns, contributed from Russia? a highly entertaining account — almost worthy of Evelyn Waugh? — of a wild Dagestani wedding? attended by the gangsterish president of Chechnya, who danced clumsily “with his gold-plated automatic stuck down the back of his jeans.”

Burns’ analyses of Russian politics are astute. So are his colleagues’ reports from Berlin, Paris and London. In a 2008 dispatch from Berlin, the then-grand coalition government of Christian and Social Democrats in Germany is compared to “the proverbial couple that hated each other but stay together for the sake of the children.”

From Paris, there is a hilarious pen portrait of the antics of Nicolas (and Carla) Sarkozy. And we Brits would do well to take a long, hard look at our neurotic obsession with our so-called special relationship with Washington, as it appears in the unsentimental mirror of confidential dispatches from the U.S. Embassy in London.

Among the more disturbing leaks were cables over the signature of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that seem to suggest that regular American diplomats are being asked to grub around for top U.N. officials’ credit card and biometric details. Clarification is now urgently needed from Foggy Bottom (the seat of the State Department) on who exactly was expected to do what under these Human Intelligence Directives.

More broadly, what you see in all this diplomatic traffic is how security and counter-terrorism concerns have pervaded every aspect of American foreign policy over the last decade. But you also see how serious the threats are, and how little the West is in control of them.

There is devastating stuff here about the Iranian nuclear program and the extent not merely? of Israeli but, above all, of Arab fears of it (“cut off the head of ?the snake,” a Saudi ambassador reports his king urging the ?Americans); the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile to rogue Islamists; anarchy and ?corruption on a massive scale in Afghanistan (with an Afghan leader carrying millions of dollars out of the country in cash); Al Qaeda in Yemen; and real-life tales of the power of the Russian mafia gangs that make John le Carré's latest novel look almost understated.

There is a genuine public interest in knowing these things. Responsible news media have gone to great lengths to try to ensure that nothing they publish puts anyone at risk. We should all demand of WikiLeaks that it does the same.

Yet one question remains. How can diplomacy be conducted under these conditions? A State Department spokesman is surely right to say that the revelations are “going to create tension in relationships between our diplomats and our friends around the world.”

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The conduct of government is already hampered by fear of leaks. There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. Those two public interests are in conflict.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of “Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing From a Decade Without a Name.”


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