The diversity and overall quality of U.S. diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks on November 28 is breathtaking.  A quarter-million confidential communications between 274 missions and the State Department will eventually be released—16,000 of them marked “Secret”; 100,000, “Confidential.”  The trove’s 261 million words exceed the entire Foreign Relations series, packed with almost two centuries of American foreign-policymaking.  It makes an aficionado feel like a 12-year-old with a million-dollar Best Buy gift card.

A sampling of the raw material available on (avoid the New York Times-edited derivatives) indicates an impressive level of professional competence and talent in U.S. outposts around the world.  Some reports, notably on Pakistan and the Far East, could have come from the pages of Chronicles.  There are also quality cables from Russia, the Middle East, and Western Europe.  The description of the president of Chechnya attending a Dagestani wedding and dancing clumsily, his gold-plated automatic stuffed down the back of his jeans, is unforgettable.  Turkey’s main opposition party is “no more than a bunch of elitist ankle-biters.”  Prime Minister Erdogan believes in God “but doesn’t trust him.”  His “rhetorical skill, while etched with populist victimhood, [is] redolent with traditional and religious allusions that resonate deeply in the heartland, deeply in the anonymous exurban sprawls . . . ”

Some of the material is light years ahead of most U.S.-based think-tank experts and media commentators.  Even the Western Europeans grudgingly admit that American reports are superior to the bureaucratese of their own diplomats.  The State Department, it appears, remains a competent organization at the level of professional Foreign Service officers.  Its careerists are surprisingly professional and aware.

Between careerists and senior decisionmakers, however, there appears to be an unbridgeable chasm.  Where does the “reality-based view” go when top officials make their decisions about Turkey, Russia, the Middle East, or the Balkans, apparently at odds with their field officers’ assessments and recommendations?  According to a former Foreign Service officer who has spoken to me on condition of anonymity, “The diplomats abroad are still ‘reality-oriented’ on most issues, but their political bosses—of both parties—are not.”  The gap would become more intelligible, perhaps, if we had access to a few “Top Secret” memos tracing the development of actual policy.

The continued ability of diplomatic foot soldiers to function is impaired by the leaks, but not for long.  “The Americans will be the butt of jokes on the diplomatic circuit for a while, and certain friends—and enemies, especially in the Muslim world—will be a bit more guarded for a while,” my source says, “but let us not pretend many foreigners have sincerely believed our government can really keep secrets well anyway: the debacle merely confirms what they have rightly felt about the [U.S. government] and how Washington works.”

The real question is, how could it happen?  Mass releases normally occur only when a state collapses, like Germany in 1945, or experiences a revolution, like Russia after 1917.  In the Cold War days, the leak of a tiny fraction of this cache to a potentially unfriendly pair of eyes would have caused alarm and triggered damage control.  Diplomats and military attachés used to justify their ranks, salaries, perks, and pensions with a few juicy morsels on par with the “Putin’s Work Ethic” cable from Moscow in 2009.

The problem was caused by post-September 11 pressure from the highest levels in the U.S. government to share all data relevant to national security with anyone with proper clearance.  The WikiLeaks cache came off SIPRNet (Secret Internet Protocol Router Network), the U.S. military’s private internet.  It is a secret-level information system to which hundreds of thousands of military and civilian personnel have daily access.

In the end a private first class, who should not have been in the military in the first place, did what someone, somewhere, eventually was going to do.  (He had obvious personal problems comparable to Major Hasan’s, but once again our p.c.-addled DoD brass were too afraid to point out the obvious about a very troubled young man.)

Nobody knows how many of these documents may have been passed to unauthorized third parties over the years.  In usual Washingtonian fashion, common sense will be applied several years too late, with the horse long out of the barn.  At least it may prompt a reexamination of the U.S. government’s strange classification system, which systematically overclassifies mundane information while rendering vulnerable a great deal of highly sensitive, but not adequately classified, information.

How the Department of Justice and the Pentagon respond to these challenges, and specifically what they do with Pfc. Bradley Manning, will speak volumes about how much the administration wants to prevent future debacles.  According to my source, “Examples need to be made, but one rightly doubts if Mr. Holder and his ilk have the stomach to do so.”