Secret, what secret? Some cables not worthy of the word

WASHINGTON—Everyone loves a secret. But after almost a week of cascading revelations courtesy of WikiLeaks, it is increasingly evident American diplomats love the term to occasionally ridiculous excess.

Take, for instance, a “Secret” missive to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia that popped up Thursday at www.cablegate.wikileaks.org, the site where anyone can now see what the world looks like through the eyes of American diplomacy.

Weighing in at a whopping 3,585 words, the document tells you everything you could possibly want to know about a fairly short but severe October, 2009, blackout in Brazil. In all, 18 of Brazil’s 27 states went dark for periods ranging from 20 minutes to 6 hours before power was restored.

We learn in excruciating detail the various explanations for the blackout, as reported in the Brazilian press. A final section recommends that Washington “seize the moment” as an opportunity for closer engagement with Brazil, perhaps by offering an “energy cooperation agreement” to share expertise.

Cue James Bond with that bombshell stuffed in his shoe, making another great escape to save the world.

Most diplomats admit they know secrets. But only some admit just how often “Secret” gets slapped on documents unworthy of the restriction.

Former U.S. ambassador Gordon Giffin, no longer gagged by diplomatic discretion, says the classification “Secret” is routinely assigned to just about anything moving through the sausage-factory of U.S. diplomacy.

“If some visiting diplomat attends a reception in Ottawa and loved the food so much they ask for the recipe, chances are the cable will be marked “Secret” when it lands at the Canada Desk in Washington,” said Giffin, who was stationed in Ottawa in the Clinton era.

“It shouldn’t be. But the fact is that most of the cables come from people stationed at embassies around the world who constantly feel the need to remind Washington that ‘We’re here, we’re active, we’re doing stuff.’ Assigning it higher importance than it deserves is just part of the process.”

Paul Frazer, the former Canadian diplomat who served in various European capitals, including as ambassador to the Czech Republic, describes a similarly bureaucratic dynamic within Canadian diplomacy.

“Foreign service officers have a tendency to think their words are tremendously important. And so a kind of ‘classification creep’ sets in, where some people think their documents will get more attention if they are marked confidential,” said Frazer, now a Washington-based consultant.

“There would be fights about it because we saw no reason for classification. We had to struggle to keep it in check.”

As of Thursday, WikiLeaks has posted barely 600 of the 251,287 stolen embassy cables in its possession — a pace of disclosure so glacial it would take five years to see them all. WikiLeaks will need to speed things up if it intends to fulfill its promise to release the data “in stages over the next few months.”

The Brazil memo is one of 15,652 classified “Secret,” according to WikiLeaks, while another 141,748 are marked with the lower-level restriction of “Confidential.”

The difference, under U.S. law, is this: “Secret” applies to information that, if disclosed, could cause “serious damage” to American interests; “whereas “Confidential” applies to content that could cause “damage.” None of the WikiLeaks memos, it should be noted, are classified “Top Secret,” a designation the U.S. reserves for information that could cause “exceptionally grave damage.”

With the five media groups in possession of the entire dataset promising more weeks of rolling revelations, the expectation is that some of the as-yet-untold secrets may be worthy of the word.

But the really big stuff, said Giffin, never gets put down in writing anyway.

“If you come across something particularly insightful — which, by the way, is rare — you don’t rush back to the embassy to write a cable,” he said.

“It would inform my judgment on how to advise the U.S. government to proceed on a particular issue or relationship. It might be spoken in words. But it wouldn’t be communicated in writing to anybody.”

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