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29 November 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 6:01am

The real significance of the US cables leak

The leaks tell us little we didn’t know already but have exposed the limits of confidentiality.

By George Eaton

Cut through some of the hype about a “world diplomatic crisis”, and the truth is that so far little of note has emerged from the US cables leak. The news that Saudi Arabia wants the US to bomb Iran (the region’s rival superpower) should come as a surprise to no one.

Elsewhere, we learn that the US believes Silvio Berlusconi is “vain”, that Angela Merkel is “risk-averse” and that Nicolas Sarkozy is “thin-skinned”. Who doesn’t? Similarly, the revelation that the US and the UK have “grave fears” over the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme hardly sets the pulse racing.

As with the MPs’ expenses scandal, the best may be still to come, but I’m yet to be surprised by anything I’ve read (the first 63 cables are available here).

Instead, what’s significant about the leak is that it happened at all. As Simon Jenkins points out, it proves that “an electronic secret is a contradiction in terms”. Allies and foes of the Americans alike will be alarmed that the US government allowed this to happen.

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That the material was made available to no fewer than three million government employees (it was not classified “top secret”), one of whom allegedly copied a selection on to a fake Lady Gaga CD, will surely prompt a rethink in Washington. Unless governments are to revert to an era of pre-digital diplomacy, however, embarrassment is the price they’ll have to pay for the foreseeable future.