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 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:
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 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:
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