9 December 2010 by Daniel P. Serwer
I wrote thousands of diplomatic cables during 21 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, and I dread calculating how many I’ve read. Here is an insider’s view of how to read them.
Don’t believe everything they say (and don’t say). A good diplomat will of course report what foreigners say as accurately as possible, but even when she does there are still several sources of uncertainty. Most important is language.
I have top scores in both Portuguese and Italian, but I did not always understand every word an interlocutor (that’s diplomatese for “person,” implicitly someone worth talking to) said to me in Brazil and Italy. Many conversations occur in non-ideal conditions (noisy restaurants, standing up at cocktail parties, in crowded hallways, over unreliable cell phones, at opposite ends of a long conference table). If the foreigners are speaking to you in English, they may not always understand the subtleties of our complex language and may say things that require interpretation. If the conversation is conducted through an interpreter, a great deal may be lost in translation.
In addition to language, there are omissions. Diplomats don’t usually report a lot on what they themselves say, though there are exceptions to the rule. If there is a need to prove that you carried out your instructions, you may reproduce the instructions in the cable almost to the letter, even if you didn’t really say all that stuff.
What is missing is more important than what is there. The cables being published are not the most sensitive ones. Those are usually “captioned” with markings that limit their distribution (limdis, exdis and nodis are the most common captions, but there are others for special topics). Captioned cables are not routinely shared interagency, so the low-level Defense Department type who leaked these did not have access to the more restricted material. There is of course Top Secret material as well that is not included in the wikileaks. But “Top Secret” is not used as much as people imagine for normal diplomatic discourse. Wikileaks has provided the iceberg, but the tip of limited distribution materials is missing. That is often the most interesting material.
The people who write the cables are not always the ones speaking in them or signing them. It is common for ambassadors and other high-level officials to go to meetings with “principals” (big shots) accompanied by a note-taker. They are lower-ranking Foreign Service officers who know that their job is in part to make the principals look good in the cable that inevitably they have to draft. Being a note-taker is a privilege, a greater one the higher ranking the principal. You want to be asked to do it again.
Note-takers draft, circulate the draft for clearance, and get a higher-up to sign off. All diplomatic cables leaving an American embassy are sent in the name of the Ambassador or Charge’ (the person he leaves in charge when out of the country, usually the “Deputy Chief of Mission” aka Minister for most non-American embassies). This does not mean that the Ambassador necessarily read or signed the cable—there will be others in the Embassy authorized to “sign out”—though if an ambassador was involved in the discussion reported she normally would want to read it before it goes to Washington.
The cables you are reading are on the whole well done, and you can read millions more if you want. The general reaction around the world in diplomatic circles is horror at the release of these documents, but admiration and even acclaim for their quality.
There are many more available for the asking: under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the National Security Archive at George Washington University has acquired many more than wikileaks is publishing. Those obtained under FOIA are scrubbed to make sure no risks to the national security will arise; they are generally older than some of those being published now and of less obvious journalistic interest.
You can even ask for cables yourself: submit a request on the State Department website and ask for whatever you want. They won’t come right away, but they do eventually come (you may have to pay reproduction costs). I’ve collected many more over the years than I’ll ever be able to read and make sense of!