WikiLeaks has released thousands of confidential diplomatic cables. What's a cable, and why are we still using them?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 29 2010 6:35 PM

What's a "Diplomatic Cable"?

And why is the State Department still using them?

Why does the State Department still call them "cables"?
Why does the State Department still call them "cables"?

The backroom chatter of American diplomats was put on display Sunday, as WikiLeaks began to release 251,287 diplomatic cables allegedly disclosed by a dissident U.S. soldier. What, exactly, is a "cable," and why is the State Department still using them?

It's 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. Employees on the other end would decipher the pulses coming through their headphones or decode printed sheets of dots and dashes. (As recently as the Cuban Missile Crisis, American and Soviet diplomats were sending urgent messages via Western Union.) 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.

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So what's the difference between a modern-day cable and an e-mail? It has more to do with content than method of delivery. Both travel from computer to computer, but 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. (Confidential messages, for example, end up in a networked database called ClassNet.) Put simply, if you want to send a personal note to Hillary Clinton about the agenda for next week's meeting, you'd use an e-mail. If you're transmitting an assessment of the Afghan elections, you'd send a cable.

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, and in fact people inside the department have noted that there's little functional difference between the two. The developers responsible for the new communications program even proposed eliminating the "cable" classification altogether. But Foggy Bottom old-timers objected, arguing that to get rid of cables would be an abandonment of a grand diplomatic tradition.

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Explainer thanks Andy Laney of the State Department and David A. Langbart of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.