Ex-Diplomats Fear Leak Will Lead To Cautious Cables

Laptop computer with envelopes spilling from the screen onto the keyboard.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables contained information on the inner workings of the State Department, including some frank assessments of world leaders. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the disclosure of classified State Department documents was an attack — not just on U.S. foreign policy interests but also on the international community.

She's trying to limit the diplomatic fallout and says she thinks U.S. partnerships will survive this test.

What might change, though, is how information flows in the State Department and the federal government.

There's an art to diplomatic cable writing, and at times it is a bit like journalism. That's the view of retired diplomat Ronald Neumann, who runs the American Academy of Diplomacy.

"The important things in writing a telegram, a cable, as we call it, are to convey important information succinctly, well-written and in a way that will catch the attention of a policymaker," Neumann says.

That means a good headline and a summary for busy policymakers. And, as seen in some of the leaked diplomatic cables, it could also include some colorful remarks about local politicians. Neumann has done his fair share of cable reading and writing over his long diplomatic career, and says Americans shouldn't be surprised by the candor they see.

"I'm amused by the fact that people are finding it surprising that cables are frank," Neumann says. "They think because we are not always frank in public that we can't be frank with each other. And the nature of the requirement of the diplomatic profession is to be sharp and focused and frank in your internal communications because that's what your government depends on for making policy choices."

But with hundreds of thousands of these frank assessments coming to light — and embarrassing some key U.S. partners — diplomats might think twice about what they write.

Former ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill says he certainly would be more cautious if he were still in government service.

"Frankly, it would have an effect on what I would put in the next cable," Hill says. "I would be very, very careful about putting anything of any interest in telegrams for some time."

Hill, who is now dean at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, says the leaked documents could also put a chill on another important aspect of diplomatic work.

"They will have an impact in terms of American diplomats going out and trying to do their jobs — that is, try to have candid, frank discussions," Hill says. "It's hard to have a senior official of a foreign government say things in front of a note taker just to begin with, and now to worry that those notes will be not only turned into a cable but that the cable will be turned into a newspaper article is worrisome."

Ambassador Neumann, who served most recently in Afghanistan, echoed that concern — saying the people named in the cables probably won't be speaking to U.S. embassy officials anytime soon.

"If a man says something about his mother-in-law to his wife, and his wife goes and tells her mother about it, now how do you think he's going to feel about talking to his wife? This is a human problem. People are embarrassed," Neumann says.

And the State Department fears that they could also be put at risk.

Secretary Clinton says the disclosures of private conversations threaten not just relations with governments but also contacts with a variety of people.

"U.S. diplomats meet with local human rights workers, journalists, religious leaders and others outside of governments, who offer their own candid insights," Clinton says. "These conversations also depend on trust and confidence."

That trust could be hard for U.S. ambassadors to restore now.

Clinton has sent a message to diplomats making clear that she values their work and their candid field reporting, her spokesman says.

Clinton just needs to find a way to make sure their views are kept private.

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