The following message was sent to the Gulf2000 email list on December 19, 2010 and is re-printed here below with his permission. Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service officer who was country director for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis. -CF
As I understand it, Wikileaks has captured a huge half of State Department cable reports — the less interesting half. As Frank Rettenberg has written, the really good stuff is sent under captions (EXDIS, NODIS, etc.) that restrict distribution. Each Department principal (assistant secretary and above) will have a flunky whose job it is to winnow the traffic that arrives hourly. Into the burn bag go much of the reporting that Wikileaks is publishing; into it also goes lots of the restricted traffic that provides no special insights. What is left are the relatively few messages that are read by policy-making eyes. The Wikileaks material is destined mainly for desk officers whose knowledge is supposed to be encyclopedic and must constantly be affirmed.
The Wikileaks stuff is generated by political officers whose words are designed to give the flavor and context of life abroad, frequently, but not always, in support of established US positions. (The Department has difficulty coming up with nominees for its dissent awards.) Thus, I imagine an Iran listening post will report on the complaints of dissatisfied Iranians while not considering it news when a regime supporter praises A/N. Not unusually, the reporter may also try to elaborate on the news described and published by journalists, i.e., the accepted wisdom. The most useful reporting is when Washington is taken by surprise by a conversation or observation.
So how did the views of various Gulf royals about Iran slip into the Wikileaks collection? Perhaps a mistake in classification. (That will surely not again be repeated.) Perhaps, the reporting officer did not consider the views as news, having been frequently expressed in cables. Similarly, the unflattering descriptions of various European leaders were probably considered part of the commonly accepted truths appearing in the press — and thus not requiring special (EXDIS) protection.
In my distant day, a certain etiquette was observed in references to favored foreign leaders. I don’t recall ever reading a rude word about the leadership of Israel, or Sadat or the early Mubarak, or the Shah. Fear of leaks? Or the bended knee syndrome? Whatever the reason there was every inclination to protect friends and to avoid open discussion of our differences with them. Once an economic officer in Embassy Tehran, completing a four-year tour, wrote a detailed memo describing corruption in high places. Only two copies were made and they were closely guarded. Perhaps the occupiers of the Embassy have published it. Generally, speaking they did a much more comprehensive job a (if selective on certain subjects) of exposing official communications to the daylight.
Unhappily, the sheer volume of Wikileaks material will weigh heavily on US diplomacy for years to come. Foreigners will be less forthcoming with our officers; the reports produced by those officers will be more restricted in circulation. It will be harder to conduct our business under those conditions.