What The Diplomatic Cables Mean To Historians

NPR's Guy Raz talks to Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, about what the cables released by WikiLeaks mean to historians.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, Turkey, of course isn't the only country feeling a bit stung by the WikiLeaks dump. Most major U.S. allies and adversaries are mentioned in those cables, and there are still tens of thousands yet to be released.

Now, normally, documents like these are only declassified after 30 or 40 years. But the WikiLeaks papers offer historians a remarkable opportunity to get a jump start on writing the history of our times.

Peter Kornbluh is one of those historians. He's a senior analyst with the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Peter Kornbluh, welcome.

Mr. PETER KORNBLUH (Senior Analyst, National Security Archive, George Washington University): It's a pleasure to be here.

RAZ: You spend a lot of time trying to convince the government to declassify documents more than three decades old. How difficult would it be for you to get the kinds of cables released by WikiLeaks through legitimate channels?

Mr. KORNBLUH: Well, almost impossible. That's what makes this release of documents so amazing, is that some of the documents are less than 10 months old. They are contemporary, almost ongoing history. The ambassadors and U.S. officials who wrote them are still in place.

RAZ: Still in office. Yeah.

Mr. KORNBLUH: They're still in the embassies. They're still in the State Department. They're still at the United Nations. So that's the great distinction here; these documents are contemporary, relevant history.

RAZ: So how valuable are these documents as a historical record for somebody like you?

Mr. KORNBLUH: I think that once the dust settles, this archive will become one of the most used troves of records, not only for students of current history in the United States but around the world. That's the second amazing thing about them, is the magnitude of this collections covers I believe more than 200 countries. And so, so many countries and so many citizens in these countries have an interest in what the documents will say.

And they're going to be studied in this digital form where they can be searched for the information they have entered them for the history. And we're going to learn an awful lot about the way our State Department conducts diplomacy and the policy of the United States of America.

By the way, all to the good, I think, we will learn things that are important for us to challenge and we will learn things that we will be proud of.

RAZ: What do you make of the language in some of these cables: feckless leaders like Silvio Berlusconi who was called that; or the idea that the German governing coalition is like two parents who want to get divorced but stay together for the sake of the children? I mean, this is language in these cables.

Mr. KORNBLUH: Well, that's colorful language. The people who write these cables want to distinguish themselves and then want to come up with apt descriptions that make their point. I've read thousands of State Department cables dating all the way back to the 1960s, and you'll often find an ambassador who's a very colorful writer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KORNBLUH: I think that the quote from, I believe that came from the Turkish foreign minister just yesterday to Hillary Clinton, was that you should see what we say about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Right, yes.

Mr. KORNBLUH: I mean, we are not the only country whose diplomatic communications contain observations like these.

RAZ: Peter Kornbluh, you spend so much time looking at documents in archives. How reliable are diplomatic cables, I mean, in sort of trying to get a full understanding of a period or an event? I mean, is it possible that falsehoods or half-truths are passed along in some of these cables?

Mr. KORNBLUH: Absolutely. You have sources coming to embassy officials for their own reasons, for their own axe to grind, passing on information that may or may not be true about other members of their own government, or about other governments, or about policies that their own countries are fostering or pursuing.

And so, you can't just look at one document. You have to look at a set of documents and weigh all the information that you have, before you can say that the information is actually true in the document.

That is one of the things that is interesting, promising about this future historical archive that we will have access to, is there seems to be quite a few documents on a number of countries. And perhaps we will have the context and progression of events so that we can see actually what happened.

RAZ: That's Peter Kornbluh. He's a senior analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Peter Kornbluh, thank you so much.

Mr. KORNBLUH: It's great to be here talking about this really interesting issue.

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