Reading WikiLeaks cables is like eating a box of chocolates. You never know what kind you’re going to get. Some may be nutritious, but others may rot your teeth.

Certainly, some of these cables revealed important issues. Yet you should view these leaks with some degree of caution. Take it from me. In a previous career, I was a diplomatic and military historian, which meant that I spent more than six years reading hundreds of thousands of declassified documents from a variety of sources and many levels of classification.

The diplomatic information WikiLeaks divulged is but one slice of one sliver of information used in the process of policy formation, so the leaks should be viewed in that context. It would be a mistake to take one comment a diplomat wrote in a cable and extrapolate it as a definitive representation of broader U.S. policy. There are important data points in these cables that can help flesh out a narrative. But it’s also important to consider what’s not in these cables and what others might contain. It’s like looking at a mosaic with the majority of tiles missing, obscuring the picture.

WikiLeaks dumped a quarter million “secret” State Department cables with our overseas embassies. The cache didn’t contain top secret, limited distribution, or other intelligence products. Nor were cables released from such government agencies as the Department of Defense, Department of Commerce, or National Security Council that also play important roles in policy formation and may have strongly divergent views.

Keep in mind the motivations of those who leaked the cables and those who made them public. In this case, what were the motivations behind the WikiLeaks organization in publishing these cables, and were there exculpatory documents they decided to withhold? Only a few thousand messages have been released so far out of some 250,000 cables. Could they be driving a political agenda by releasing potentially inflammatory documents in a particular sequence?

Just as importantly, it’s useful to know the motivations behind the author of each cable whenever possible. As far back as the Roman Empire, diplomats have had fairly consistent concerns about their dispatches sent back home: Are my letters being read by the right influential people? Is my star ascendant in court politics, or are my enemies undermining me in my absence? Do my superiors like what I’ve written, or do I need to flatter them more? Would it help if I included more gossip to make things sexier?

Today, there’s also the fear of potential budget cuts. A person writing a cable may wish to promote and spin a particular program on which his or her career advancement may rest. Conversely, a program may be failing and the author may want to “set the record straight” in a cable. And career diplomats might tailor the political spin of a cable to curry favor with the political appointees above them in the hierarchy.

There’s already the emerging danger of fake WikiLeaks being used in other countries to fuel ethnic tensions or regional rivalries. Several major Pakistani newspapers have admitted to publishing stories based on fake cables in which U.S. diplomats ostensibly accused Indian officials of working with Hindu fundamentalists and supporting Islamist militants in Pakistan. A pro-government magazine in Russia has been accused of citing either nonexistent cables or politically distorting its translations. In an age where extremists can go “reality shopping” on the internet, this trend is dangerous.

If journalism is considered the first draft of history, then the WikiLeaks cables are a set of footnotes in that draft. They offer us an instant keyhole peek into our diplomacy, but in five or ten years, we will have more memoirs and articles to give us a letter-slot view into the room. In 25 years we may have access to officially declassified cables which would give us a window to peer into the room. After 50 or 60 years we may have access to diaries, oral histories, and personal papers of diplomats after their deaths, which could give us a view from a seat at the table.

Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and worked as a diplomatic and military historian in the 1990s.

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