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January 2011

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Assessing the Reporting Cable Fiasco

imageThe brouhaha that has erupted with the publishing of confidential and secret reporting cables from American embassies around the world will not subside anytime soon.  Having served as a Foreign Service Officer at ten American embassies, I can identify with the pain that the reporting officers must feel and the frustration of their most important contacts. 

Embassy reporting goes beyond journalism.  Ambassadors are the personal representatives of the President.  By virtue of their office, they and their fellow diplomats command an uncommon   level of dialogue in the course of their work.  It is often said that diplomats abroad are the “last three feet of the message.”  In this technological age it is an especially apt description.

It is the diplomats who look their contacts in the eye and take measure of their interlocutors in a dimension that cannot be achieved electronically.  The winks, the nods and the nuance of language, the anger, the frustration, the skepticism, the whimsy, the urgency are vitally important to communication, and diplomats record and report accordingly, forwarding their impressions to the policy-making levels of government.  Success in the Foreign Service is closely related to reporting skills. 

Consider Ambassador George F. Kennan’s pivotal role in helping to forge US policy toward the Soviet Union in the difficult days following World War II.  President Truman listened attentively to him and changed history with what came to be called the “containment policy,” aimed at thwarting Soviet encroachment.  American ambassadors are key to foreign policy formulation and the officers who serve them are integral to the embassy’s reporting mission. 

There is a broad and sinister dimension to the criminal act of deliberately divulging classified information.  It is true that once leaked, classified materials became fair game for the media.  The act of revealing and publishing confidential sources in diplomacy both confounds and diminishes the ability of embassy professionals to identify, develop and maintain top reporting sources.  It may also make the reporting officers more timid and circumspect in their reporting.  Our national policy-making may reflect the diminished product.  Repairing the ensuing damage abroad and at home will not come quickly.  The media flourish is only the beginning. 

The Department of State bears primary responsibility for managing an airtight communication system and until now it has generally achieved that objective.  There is clearly a weak link in the information security chain.  The firewall has been breached.  Today’s technology poses a special challenge and radical change must be wrought to protect sources.  Indeed there is some question whether this technological challenge can be met.  Expert hackers lurk in unlikely places and the U. S. government is a tempting target.  Making headlines in the leading international media provides powerful incentive for those who bear a grudge or seek the limelight.bluestar


Tom Homan, a retired Foreign Service Officer, is Director of International education at The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, Minnesota.   This commentary originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune.

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