Jerome Taylor: This is a public airing of Washington's dirty linen

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Secret cables are the cornerstone of diplomacy.

Embassies are filled with employees who spend a large portion of their day sending information back to their home countries – information that would often make deeply uncomfortable reading were it ever to be made public.

The revelation that Wikileaks is on the verge of publishing thousands of cables from US embassies around the world has sent the State Department into a flurry of frantic activity as officials try to second guess what is being released and how to limit the damage once the information is out there.

What makes the release of diplomatic cables so potentially explosive is that they could cover a vast spectrum of information that America and her allies would like to keep secret. Cables are the diplomatic equivalent of dirty linen that no country wants to see aired in public. "Diplomatic cables might talk about political instability inside the country – there could be information about secret deals, weapons agreements, talks with dissidents, all sorts of things," explains Yossi Mekelberg, an expert on Israel-US relations at Chatham House. "But cables are not policy papers. When I read cables I'm often surprised at how gossipy they can be."

The informal nature of such missives has the potential to cause some serious red faces in capitals around the world. Embassy workers can usually depend on the contents of what they send to remain hidden from public view. Secrecy is the tool that allows them to say and report exactly what they really think of the country they work in to their superiors back home.

Foreign ministries, meanwhile, are reliant on candid reports from their embassies. No government wants to be caught off guard because embassy employees are scared to tell it like it is.

"When someone writes a diplomatic cable they do so in the knowledge that what they write is unlikely to be published for a minimum of 25 years and sometimes never," explains Mekelberg. "The potential for embarrassment is great but you can get over embarrassment in five minutes. The real damage will come from cables that tell us about operations, secret talks that aren't meant to be happening and other form of concrete diplomacy."

Professor Michael Cox, an expert on international relations at the London School of Economics, says the Americans are clearly rattled by the possibility of having so many secret cables released. "The response from the US government this week shows they are definitely feeling the heat," he says. "But my suspicion is the cables will be embarrassing, rather than diplomatically threatening.

"Everyone knows there is a great game being played by states against each other. But in terms of diplomatic consequences, I would imagine states would prefer to spend their energy working out how they can try and close Wikileaks down, rather than fall out with each other over the content of the cables."