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.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

FP Explainer

Did U.N. Peacekeepers Bring Cholera to Haiti?

Not necessarily.

Efforts to combat Haiti's rapidly spreading cholera outbreak, which has so far killed more than 1,000 people in the country, were hampered this week by widespread anti-U.N. rioting in the country's north. The rioting has forced the United Nations and nongovernmental agencies to suspend the delivery of badly needed medical and sanitation supplies. The violence is thought to be partly the result of Haitians' longstanding resentment of the 12,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country, but has also been caused by the widespread belief that the peacekeepers themselves introduced the disease. Could that possibly be true?

Perhaps, but it's far from certain. Haiti has not had a cholera outbreak in several decades, while Nepal, where many of the peacekeepers are from, is currently suffering one. Media attention has focused on the U.N. camp near the northern city of Cap-Haitien, the epicenter of the outbreak, which has poor sanitation facilities and is located near a river. Additionally, the initial tests by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that the particular strain of cholera currently plaguing Haiti matches one found in South Asia. Despite these clues, there's still a very good chance that cholera was present in Haiti long before the Nepalese troops arrived.

The bacteria that cause cholera can exist in an environment, usually an enclosed body of water, for long periods before infecting a human population. (The bacteria have even been found in the Chesapeake Bay.) When the bacteria are ingested, the human intestine acts as an incubator for the disease, making it more virulent. (Not everyone who ingests cholera will get sick; an individual's overall health and genetic disposition also play a role.) When the person then excretes the bacteria back into the environment through defecation, the disease can spread though a population's water supply.

It's not unprecedented for cholera to suddenly break out in an area with little warning. A cholera epidemic broke out in Peru in 1991 after the disease hadn't been seen in South America in more than a century. Later tests revealed that the bacteria had been present in the water supply for some time. While there are hundreds of serotypes -- or varieties -- of cholera, only a few are virulent enough to cause outbreaks. Over time, however, the virulent and nonvirulent types cross-breed and produce new genetic configurations, increasingly the likelihood that someone will ingest them.

In modern times, cholera outbreaks almost invariably occur in places with poor sanitation and little access to clean drinking water. In the case of Haiti, many doctors are less surprised by cholera's emergence than by the fact that it hadn't happened sooner. One University of Florida microbiologist had in fact warned of the likelihood of a cholera outbreak after a trip to Haiti this past summer -- several months before the outbreak.

The CDC test is also not necessarily conclusive. Outside observers say the center's tests are not as specific as those used by other organizations and more research is needed to pinpoint exactly which strain is present in Haiti. The CDC itself says that despite the similarity of the disease to South Asian strains, it's not possible to accurately pinpoint the source.

Public health experts debate whether it's even worth the effort to trying to find out where the disease come from at a time when scarce resources are being devoted to halting its spread. The World Health Organization has said that investigating the origin of the outbreak is "not important right now," though longtime Haiti public-health advocate and U.N. deputy special envoy Paul Farmer counters that finding the source "would seem to be a good enterprise in terms of public health" and that the reluctance of international organizations to investigate further is politically motivated.

For its part, the U.N. peacekeeping mission says that medical tests on its troops showed no signs of cholera. But that answer is unlikely to satisfy the desperate protesters on the streets of Cap-Haitien.

Thanks to David Sack, professor of global disease epidemiology and control at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.    

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