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WikiLeaks' slowly spilling flood of sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables has sparked a fierce debate around the world about not only the ethics of this leak, but its very value. My first training is not as a journalist, but as an historian and a philosopher, which means I've got a fancy way to describe this situation: an epistemological quandary, i.e., we don't know what we should know.

The key to understanding the value -- or potential lack thereof -- of these cables lies entirely in how we, journalists, academics, and the reading public, interpret what WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and company have poured into our laps. And the problem is that it's incredibly difficult to do that in an effective way.

As an example of what I mean, let's take a look at 09ULAANBAATAR234, a really interesting but so far totally overlooked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia from August 13, 2009. It describes a meeting between Mongolia's President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj and State Secretary Damdin Tsogtbaatar with North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, during which they discussed a small plethora of hot issues.

The Americans' source about the meeting does something very crafty. On the one hand, he/she presents the Mongolians as very actively and consciously trying to coax the North Koreans (DPRK) into denuclearization and negotiation:

The Mongolian side expressed concern that a nuclear DPRK could lead to a nuclear ROK [South Korea], Japan, Syria, and Iran, and urged that the Mongolian nuclear-free model could serve as an example. [...] The Mongolians offered the example of the Soviet Union and the United States during the Reagan-Gorbachev era, when the two allowed for nuclear inspections, leading to improved trust and a reduction in the number of warheads. The Mongolians stated that if they were in the DPRK's place now, they would allow inspections, which would lead to mutual confidence and improved relations. The DPRK side offered no reaction to the suggestion

[...] The Mongolian side counseled that recent "provocations" (xxxxx; another word may have been used in the consultations) such as the missile test meant that the present situation was very fragile, and that the DPRK should be careful not to present the wrong signal. xxxxx The Mongolians stated that even if one has peaceful intentions, one can be seen as provocative.

[...] xxxxx further noted that a xxxxx in Ulaanbaatar xxxxx on the way to the airport on August 11 that he had suggested to VFM Kim that it would be good to host U.S.-DPRK talks in Mongolia, but that Kim offered no reaction. xxxxx that the timing was right to establish a regional security mechanism whose organization the Mongols should spearhead.

On the other hand, he/she also casts the North Koreans in a sympathetic light as a misunderstood country whose isolation and fear of the outside world are real but which has not yet trumped its better angels:

xxxxx said the DPRK is not a threat and was only interested in self-protection. [...] The DPRK felt it was five against one. Kim stated the real intention of the Six Party Talks was to destroy the DPRK regime, and that at present the DPRK wants to talk only to the United States.

There are two epistemological cruxes here. The first is the source's agenda. One need not be paranoid in order to see that his/her remarks serve the interests of Mongolia. Indeed, it seems like an obvious attempt to curry favor with the United States, and indeed, the international community, by promoting Mongolia, an otherwise poor and isolated country, as a useful and dependable third party in the North Korean crisis.

The second crux is whether the source is telling the truth, or more precisely, whether he's putting spin on the facts. Note that he/she is careful to claim that the North Koreans spoke candidly:

The DPRK delegation did not read from a prepared script, they were not aggressive and made no criticism of the United States, and they criticized China and Russia "three or four times" for supporting recent UN resolutions aimed at the DPRK.

The source needs to establish the idea in the minds of his/her U.S. audience that Mongolia is a country with whom the notoriously cagey North Koreans feel comfortable enough to be honest. Meanwhile, he/she also needs to equally establish the idea that the Mongolians have the ability and forthrightness to convey the concerns of the United States and the international community to the North Koreans:

[...] xxxxx stated the United States would not allow Japan or the ROK to go nuclear and that the DPRK is committed to peace and denuclearization. [...] Kim asked the Mongolians to support a U.S.-DPRK dialogue xxxxx stated "there are no eternal enemies in this world."

In other words, what we don't actually have here are facts, per se. What we've got instead are possible facts interlaced with almost-certain spin. As if this weren't bad enough, keep in mind that the cable which contains all this information is in English, which means the Mongolian source was translated. Untold subtleties could have been lost or distorted.

There is one thing we can be confident about, and that's the author, Mark Minton, the U.S. ambassador to Mongolia.

Given his long career of diplomatic service in the Far East, particularly in South Korea and Japan, which allows one to presume, or at least hope, that he has solid expertise on the region, combined with the originally confidential nature of this cable, a philosopher would be inclined to bestow upon Minton the "principle of charity" -- that is, assuming the best about Minton. In other words, he isn't trying to mislead anyone, and in his learned opinion, the source's remarks may be of some value.

What's ironic in all of this is that the world's been granting the principle of charity to WikiLeaks. Of course, given the scale of the leak and the reaction of the United States, this is a reasonable thing to do. Nevertheless, journalists, academics, and the reading public should never relinquish the tried and true methods of analysis and verification. WikiLeaks may like to think of itself as the "Intelligence Agency of the People," but the truth is it's us, the people, who've got to be that for ourselves.

-- Christopher Schwartz

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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