Historian Relishes WikiLeaks Cable Dump

Author and historian Timothy Garton Ash says WikiLeaks' release of 250,000 U.S. cables is a diplomats' nightmare and a historians' dream. The cables reveal the inner workings of the State Department. Garton Ash tells Renee Montagne that the mass of diplomatic cables is like a multi-course banquet.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

So Russia's Putin might be delighted to find out how he's being described, but for the most part, Timothy Garton Ash got it right: The WikiLeaks dump is a diplomat's nightmare and an historian's dream. Garton Ash is himself an historian, at Oxford University. He wrote in the Guardian newspaper that the mass of diplomatic cables for historians is like a multicourse banquet.

Professor TIMOTHY GARTON ASH (Oxford University): It's very, very rich material. The only other time you have that opportunity is when a state collapses, like communist East Germany or Nazi Germany. Then historians get to see all this stuff. But it's incredibly unusual and strange for it to happen with a functioning superpower.

MONTAGNE: What for you, as an historian, are the tastiest bits that you saw?

Prof. GARTON ASH: Well, I'm very impressed by the quality of that political reporting, which show us, for example, that the Arab states were urging the United States to stop Iran getting the nuclear bomb. That's very interesting stuff. We knew it in outline, but we didn't know that the Saudi king was saying to the United States: Cut off the head of the snake.

MONTAGNE: Some of these dispatches, they have a novelistic quality, a literary quality.

Prof. GARTON ASH: Again, I'm very impressed. There's a wonderful and hilarious account of a Dagestani wedding attended by the president of Chechnya, with his gold-plated automatic stuffed down the back of his jeans. There's extraordinary stuff in there. But that's, in a sense, the icing on the cake, to change the culinary metaphor. The real substance is the serious political reporting.

MONTAGNE: Although, you know, one of the things that has come out, had it that Afghan President Hamid Karzai freed dangerous detainees and pardoned suspected drug dealers. Well, that very story was written up in the New York Times a year and a half ago. So at some level, a lot of this is out there.

Prof. GARTON ASH: That is absolutely correct. And in many ways, the diplomats are acting like foreign correspondents and, you know, sitting around with the Guardian's foreign correspondents, who were reading this stuff. They were sort of saying, well, they did a pretty good job. That's all true.

But there is a particular quality to what a head of state or government - the king of Saudi Arabia or the French president - says to the ambassador of a superpower - which, of course, gives it a different quality. It's not just like talking to the New York Times.

MONTAGNE: Does any of it that you've seen so far - in these cables - change, fundamentally, your view of how the world works?

Prof. GARTON ASH: Well, it revises upward my personal opinion of the State Department. In other words, what I've seen about how they report, and how they operate, is really quite impressive. Secondly, what emerges very, very clearly is that if this were a person, it would be a traumatized person, someone who'd gone through a great shock - and that shock was, of course, 9/11. And the way in which security and counterterrorism concerns permeate almost every aspect of U.S. diplomacy - in whatever country it is - is, for me, very striking.

And the other point, I think, to emerge is: There are very real security threats that one glimpses through this lens.

MONTAGNE: Professor Garton Ash, thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. GARTON ASH: It's a real pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Timothy Garton Ash wrote about the WikiLeaks leaks for the Guardian newspaper. His new history of the past 10 years is called "Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing From a Decade Without a Name."

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