Advancing a Free Society

US embassy cables: A banquet of secrets

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

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 excoriating assessments of them. Over the next couple of weeks, you, the readers of the Guardian, 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. 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 I have seen, on my dives into a vast ocean, are well over 1,000 words long. If my sample is at all representative, there must be a total at least 250m 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 priorities, character, thought patterns.

Continue reading Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian