Diplomatic Cable Writing “A Bit Like Journalism”

Slate today has an Explainer addressing two basic questions raised by Cablegate: “What’s a diplomatic cable? And why is the State Department still using them?” A cable, per Slate, is

kind of like a group e-mail. For many years the term cable referred to the formal telegrams that consular staffers would send across the oceans and around the world in Morse code… But in more recent times, the cable started to function almost exactly like an e-mail, and as of 2008, the State Department handles both modes of communication with the same Microsoft Outlook-based computer system.

The difference between an email and a “modern-day cable,” per Slate, “has more to do with content than method of delivery,” as both “travel from computer to computer.”

[E]-mails are reserved for person-to-person messages that are not intended for, or not of interest to, anyone but the addressees. Cables, on the other hand, usually contain more important information that’s meant to be accessible to other diplomatic and military staff with the appropriate security clearance. As such, every electronic message that’s classified as a cable is uploaded into a database for permanent storage. When drafting a cable, a sender can specify where the information should be saved, depending on its sensitivity…

This distinction isn’t always very clear. Ever since State Department employees got e-mail access in the 1990s and early 2000s, higher-ups have worried that important information will end up in e-mails that eventually get deleted. The new messaging software is intended, in part, to address this hole in the record-keeping system by allowing senders or recipients of regular e-mail to note (by checking a box) that their message is to be maintained in a long-term database as a FOIA record. Naturally, this capability makes the system for sending cables redundant.

Why not do away with cables, then? Apparently “Foggy Bottom old-timers” have been loathe to part with this “grand diplomatic tradition.” (And, now?)

NPR’s Day Two of Cablegate coverage includes a piece pondering the future of the diplomatic cable. Will “the way information flows in the State Department and the federal government” now change? Will there be fewer cables now, and less “interesting” ones? Reports Michele Keleman:

There’s an art to diplomatic cable writing, and at times it is a bit like journalism. That’s the view of retired diplomat Ronald Neumann, who runs the American Academy of Diplomacy.

“The important things in writing a telegram, a cable, as we call it, are to convey important information succinctly, well-written and in a way that will catch the attention of a policymaker,” Neumann says.

That means a good headline and a summary for busy policymakers. And, as seen in some of the leaked diplomatic cables, it could also include some colorful remarks about local politicians. Neumann has done his fair share of cable reading and writing over his long diplomatic career, and says Americans shouldn’t be surprised by the candor they see.

A “good headline,” written to “catch attention” of policymakers. Like, this no doubt drew some eyeballs:


And this perhaps snagged a few extra readers for the U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe’s farewell cable:


Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.