Kim Philby on Truth in Diplomatic Cables

12.01.10 | 1 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

As confidential U.S. diplomatic documents continue to enter the public domain, it is worth remembering that not everything that is written down in a government document, even (or especially) in a classified document, is necessarily true.  “Truth telling” involves a bit more than trafficking in official records.  Any historian or archival researcher knows that.  So did the Soviet agent Kim Philby, who addressed the issue in his 1968 book “My Silent War” (p. 255):

“It is difficult, though by no means impossible, for a journalist to obtain access to original documents.  But these are often a snare and a delusion.  Just because a document is a document, it has a glamour which tempts the reader to give it more weight than it deserves. This document from the United States Embassy in Amman, for example. Is it a first draft, a second draft or the finished memorandum? Was it written by an official of standing, or by some dogsbody with a bright idea? Was it written with serious intent or just to enhance the writer’s reputation? Even if it is unmistakably a direct instruction to the United States Ambassador from the Secretary of State dated last Tuesday, is it still valid today?  In short, documentary intelligence, to be really valuable, must come as a steady stream, embellished with an awful lot of explanatory annotation. An hour’s serious discussion with a trustworthy informant is often more valuable than any number of original documents.”

“Of course, it is best to have both,” he added.