FP Explainer

Why Do Diplomats Still Send Cables?

To keep a record and advance their careers.


WikiLeaks’ release of nearly 250,000 U.S. State Department cables has given the public a rare look into the inner workings of American diplomacy. The files document everything from the U.S. take on Turkish foreign policy to accounts of meetings between U.S. and Chinese diplomats on North Korea’s nuclear program, to instructions for intelligence gathering at the United Nations. The cables provide the media, scholars, and foreign governments the kind of access that they normally don’t get until decades later, but also raise the question of why, in the era of modern communications, U.S. diplomats are still using a format left over from the days of the telegraph. Why does the State Department still send cables?

It’s a combination of factors, including record-keeping, secrecy, and career advancement. Of course, State Department "cables" aren’t actually transmitted by cable anymore. They’ve been transmitted electronically since the early 1970s. But the format and protocol for these transmissions remains largely unchanged since the Cold War days.

The concept of secret diplomatic communications dates back to the birth of modern diplomacy during the European Renaissance, when ambassadors would send correspondence back to their home governments in sealed diplomatic pouches that could not, by law, be opened. The inviolability of diplomatic pouches is still enshrined in international law.

The development of undersea telegraph cables in the late 19th century made for much faster communication. Yet because of the high cost of sending and encrypting sensitive telegrams, longer reports were still sent by diplomatic pouch, while telegrams were used for shorter messages. Deputy Moscow mission chief George Kennan’s 1946 description of "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" — probably the most famous cable in U.S. diplomatic history — became known as "The Long Telegram" because at over 5,000 words, it initially annoyed the penny pinchers at Foggy Bottom.

These days, embassy officials use cables to describe important meetings, analyze political trends in the countries where they are based, and make policy recommendations. Cables are easily encryptable and allow the State Department to keep a permanent record of diplomatic efforts. These documents are typically declassified after 25 years. Although most diplomatic cables end with an ambassador’s electronic "signature," they are quite frequently written by lower-level staffers and often haven’t even been seen by the ambassador in question.

Readers of the WikiLeaks document dump might be surprised by the level of descriptive detail and the writerly touches in many of the cables, which often read more like travelogues than bureaucratic memos. (See this colorful description of a Dagestani wedding attended by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.) Well-written cables are one way for low-level officials in distant embassies to make a name for themselves back in Washington and are often crafted for maximum impact. Foreign Service veterans cite Lawrence Eagleburger, a former ambassador to Yugoslavia who was later secretary of state, and Christopher Ross, a former ambassador to Algeria and Syria who is now U.N. envoy to Western Sahara, as prominent diplomats whose cables were must-reads at Foggy Bottom. But in the age of information overload, cables are increasingly just one of the many ways — from email to "open-source intelligence" on the Internet — that officials in Washington keep up with developments in the field.

Diplomatic cables include detailed routing information indicating who should be given access to them. Those are the abbreviations like "OVIP," "PREL," and "PGOV" you see at the top of the WikiLeaks documents. (For more, check out this useful guide to reading cables from the National Security Archive.) There are also classification levels ranging from "Unclassified" to "Top Secret." None of the documents released so far by WikiLeaks has been marked Top Secret, likely indicating that whoever leaked them only had secret-level clearance. Many of the leaked documents are also marked "NOFORN," indicating that the information they contain is not to be shared with foreign governments.

Since 9/11, in an effort to promote information sharing, embassies have increasingly been uploading diplomatic cables onto a database known as SIPRnet, which is accessible to military personnel as well as State Department staff. That means that the cables in question were accessible to any of the 3 million soldiers and officials holding secret clearance, including, presumably, WikiLeaks’ source.

In the wake of "cablegate," President Barack Obama’s administration has ordered the State Department to review its information-sharing procedures to prevent future leaks. In an age of information openness, the secret diplomatic dispatch — the preferred tool of international statecraft for five centuries — may have become a liability.

Thanks to Charles Hill, diplomat in residence at Yale University, and Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

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