The cables: what really counts

In the first years after the Soviet Union fell apart, Kenneth J. Fairfax sent back to the State Department a string of cables that caused people to sit up and notice. Fairfax, an officer in the environment, science and technology section of the United States Embassy in Moscow, reported in 1993 and 1994 that the ...

561001_wikileaks_art2.jpg
561001_wikileaks_art2.jpg

In the first years after the Soviet Union fell apart, Kenneth J. Fairfax sent back to the State Department a string of cables that caused people to sit up and notice. Fairfax, an officer in the environment, science and technology section of the United States Embassy in Moscow, reported in 1993 and 1994 that the Russian nuclear establishment was falling apart. Some of the worst conditions were at facilities that Russia considered civilian, but which held large quantities of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium. The materials were so poorly protected as to be up for grabs.

Quoting a Russian official in March, 1994, Fairfax wrote that under the old Soviet system, control of nuclear materials was essentially an administrative task, with "no physical control measures as are used in the U.S." Nor was there any commercial value to the material in Soviet times, and thus little danger of theft. But when the country imploded, so did this old system. "Now there are increasingly frequent reports of theft and diversion of material and a real need for a modern system of control," Fairfax warned.

As I described in The Dead Hand, alarm bells went off in Washington. The Fairfax cables were more than just good reporting. They helped policymakers in Washington spot a coming crisis -- the potentially dangerous leakage of nuclear materials from Russia -- and react to it. Eventually, the United States spent millions of dollars to help upgrade security across the former Soviet nuclear archipelago. For his work, Fairfax received the State Department's 1994 award for excellence in reporting on environment, science and technology issues by the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.

In the first years after the Soviet Union fell apart, Kenneth J. Fairfax sent back to the State Department a string of cables that caused people to sit up and notice. Fairfax, an officer in the environment, science and technology section of the United States Embassy in Moscow, reported in 1993 and 1994 that the Russian nuclear establishment was falling apart. Some of the worst conditions were at facilities that Russia considered civilian, but which held large quantities of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium. The materials were so poorly protected as to be up for grabs.

Quoting a Russian official in March, 1994, Fairfax wrote that under the old Soviet system, control of nuclear materials was essentially an administrative task, with "no physical control measures as are used in the U.S." Nor was there any commercial value to the material in Soviet times, and thus little danger of theft. But when the country imploded, so did this old system. "Now there are increasingly frequent reports of theft and diversion of material and a real need for a modern system of control," Fairfax warned.

As I described in The Dead Hand, alarm bells went off in Washington. The Fairfax cables were more than just good reporting. They helped policymakers in Washington spot a coming crisis — the potentially dangerous leakage of nuclear materials from Russia — and react to it. Eventually, the United States spent millions of dollars to help upgrade security across the former Soviet nuclear archipelago. For his work, Fairfax received the State Department’s 1994 award for excellence in reporting on environment, science and technology issues by the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.

As the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks makes public 251,287 State Department messages, there is an important lesson to be learned from the Fairfax cables. The real value of reporting like this is not press summaries, gossip and rumor. The best cables alert policy-makers in Washington to a major problem, or cause a wholesale rethink.

Sure, it is entertaining when a cable describes the Russian power duo of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev as "Batman and Robin." But what really counts are the larger, more penetrating reports that lay out how the power structure really works.

The best analysis sorts through a jumble of assorted facts from a certain place and time. This happened in the mid-1990s, when the Moscow embassy reported on the rise of clans in business and politics. The conventional wisdom at the time suggested that Russia was caught in a confrontation between reform and revanche, between President Boris Yeltsin and the Communists. But cables from diplomats such as Thomas E. Graham caused a sea change in Washington’s thinking, and opened a window on the emerging power structure of clans, centered around the oligarchs. The analytical framework helped everyone in the government better understand what unfolded day to day.

It is hard to know how many of these cables will eventually come to light in the WikiLeaks torrent. Many are probably classified at higher levels or just didn’t make the dump. But I saw examples of this kind of overarching, analytical reporting in the collection, such as 06MOSCOW5645, titled, "Chechnya: The Once and Future War."

It is useful to keep in mind that at its best, diplomatic reporting is a complex and difficult business. It demands not only data, rumors and scene, but depth and understanding. Just like good journalism, it may also require a certain amount of confidential sources. We don’t need fewer cables, we need more of them. They are beacons into dark corners of the globe.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.