Guest Post: A Diplomat’s Guide to Reading WikiLeaks

I wrote thousands of diplomatic cables during 21 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, and I dread calculating how many I’ve read. Here is an insider’s view of how to read them.

Don’t believe everything they say (and don’t say). A good diplomat will of course report what foreigners say as accurately as possible, but even when she does there are still several sources of uncertainty. Most important is language.

I have top scores in both Portuguese and Italian, but I did not always understand every word an interlocutor (that’s diplomatese for “person,” implicitly someone worth talking to) said to me in Brazil and Italy. Many conversations occur in non-ideal conditions (noisy restaurants, standing up at cocktail parties, in crowded hallways, over unreliable cell phones, at opposite ends of a long conference table). If the foreigners are speaking to you in English, they may not always understand the subtleties of our complex language and may say things that require interpretation. If the conversation is conducted through an interpreter, a great deal may be lost in translation.

In addition to language, there are omissions. Diplomats don’t usually report a lot on what they themselves say, though there are exceptions to the rule. If there is a need to prove that you carried out your instructions, you may reproduce the instructions in the cable almost to the letter, even if you didn’t really say all that stuff.

What is missing is more important than what is there. The cables being published are not the most sensitive ones. Those are usually “captioned” with markings that limit their distribution (limdis, exdis and nodis are the most common captions, but there are others for special topics). Captioned cables are not routinely shared interagency, so the low-level Defense Department type who leaked these did not have access to the more restricted material. There is, of course, top-secret material as well that is not included in the WikiLeaks. But “top secret” is not used as much as people imagine for normal diplomatic discourse. WikiLeaks has provided the iceberg, but the tip of limited distribution materials is missing. That is often the most interesting material.

The people who write the cables are not always the ones speaking in them or signing them. It is common for ambassadors and other high-level officials to go to meetings with “principals” (big shots) accompanied by a note-taker. They are lower-ranking Foreign Service officers who know that their job is in part to make the principals look good in the cable that inevitably they have to draft. Being a note-taker is a privilege, a greater one the higher ranking the principal. You want to be asked to do it again.

Note-takers draft, circulate the draft for clearance, and get a higher-up to sign off. All diplomatic cables leaving an American embassy are sent in the name of the Ambassador or Charge (the person he leaves in charge when out of the country, usually the Deputy Chief of Mission, aka Minister, for most non-American embassies). This does not mean that the Ambassador necessarily read or signed the cable — there will be others in the Embassy authorized to “sign out” — though if an ambassador was involved in the discussion reported she normally would want to read it before it goes to Washington.

The cables you are reading are on the whole well done, and you can read millions more if you want. The general reaction around the world in diplomatic circles is horror at the release of these documents, but admiration and even acclaim for their quality.

There are many more available for the asking: under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the National Security Archive at George Washington University has acquired many more than WikiLeaks is publishing. Those obtained under FOIA are scrubbed to make sure no risks to the national security will arise; they are generally older than some of those being published now and of less obvious journalistic interest.

You can even ask for cables yourself: submit a request on the State Department website and ask for whatever you want. They won’t come right away, but they do eventually come (you may have to pay reproduction costs). I’ve collected many more over the years than I’ll ever be able to read and make sense of!

This post was originally published on Serwer’s blog

DHS Launches ‘Minority Report’ Pre-Crime Detection Program

Could your ethnicity, gender, breathing and heart rate provide clues to criminal intent?

The Department of Homeland Security apparently thinks so. The agency is already testing a program on select members of the public to determine if algorithms using these factors could indicate mal-intent, according to an internal document obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and passed to CNET.

The system, dubbed FAST – or Future Attribute Screening Technology – was just an idea in 2007 and is now already in operation, according to the June 2010 document. FAST collected or retained information on unspecified members of the public in at least one field test conducted in an undisclosed location in the Northeast. A limited trial was also conducted with DHS employees.

The system’s sensors will “non-intrusively collect video images, audio recordings, and psychophysiological measurements from the employees,” according to a description of the trial program used with employees.

FAST is designed to track and monitor body movements, voice-pitch and rhythm changes, eye movement, body heat, breathing patterns, blink rate and pupil variation.

“The department’s Science and Technology Directorate has conducted preliminary research in operational settings to determine the feasibility of using non-invasive physiological and behavioral sensor technology and observational techniques to detect signs of stress, which are often associated with intent to do harm,” according to a statement DHS gave CNET. “The FAST program is only in the preliminary stages of research and there are no plans for acquiring or deploying this type of technology at this time.”

Blackhole Exploit Targeting Steve’s Death

Contributor: Anand Muralidharan

The sad news making the rounds these days is the death of Steve Jobs, Apple Co-founder and former CEO. His death has been a terrible loss to both Apple and Apple fans everywhere.

Spammers are capitalizing on this incident by sending malicious links related to the news of Steve Jobs’ death. Below is a screenshot of one such spam email containing a malicious link:

More malicious links found relating to death spam are:


All these websites contain obfuscated code leading to a BlackHole exploit. Most of the domains are recently registered, however a few of the older domains look quite legitimate and seem to be hijacked.

Below are the Subject lines which have been observed in this virus spam attack:

Is Steve Jobs Really Dead?
Steve Jobs Alive!
Steve Jobs Not Dead!
Steve Jobs: Not Dead Yet!

It is unfortunate spammers are capitalizing on this loss. Internet users must continue to be vigilant when searching for pictures, videos, and news of current events. Do not open any suspicious links or attachments received in unsolicited email, and frequently update your security software which protects you from potential online viruses and scams.


R.I.P. Steve Jobs

Publisher Claims Ownership of Time-Zone Data

The publisher of a database chronicling historical time-zone data is claiming copyright ownership of those facts, and is suing two researchers for re-purposing it in a free-to-use database relied on by millions of computers.

The data, which basically spells out past and future times anywhere in the world, is used in Java, Linux, PostgreSQL, Oracle and other programs to assign the correct time based on geographic location.

The researchers’ publicly available database was being hosted on a server at the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health, which apparently has removed the data at the request of Massachusetts-based publishing house, Astrolabe. The publisher markets its programs to astrology buffs “seeking to determine the historical time at any given time in any particular location, world-wide,” and claims ownership to the data in its “AC International Atlas” and “ACS American Atlas” software programs.

Astrolabe’s federal lawsuit, filed last week, is among the boldest claims of copyright infringement since 2005. That’s when Bikram Choudhury, the hot-yoga guru, claimed copyright to his yoga positions. Choudhury had sent cease-and-desist letters ordering studios to stop teaching what he claimed were his copyrighted yoga poses.

In an out-of-court settlement, the targeted studios agreed they would not capitalize off of the Bikram brand name. But they were not prohibited from teaching his style of yoga, which was based off of an art form thousands of years old.

The suit also faces the tough challenge of overcoming a 1991 Supreme Court decision, concerning a company that harvested listings from a phone company’s telephone book and re-published them. The court ruled that “copyright does not extend to facts contained in [a] compilation.”

Astrolabe claims Arthur Olson, a computer scientist at the National Institutes of Health, and Paul Eggert, a computer scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, have “unlawfully reproduced the works” (.pdf) and distributed them without permission from the copyright holder. The allegedly infringing database credits the Astrolabe database.

Eggert, who has written that the “tz database” is in the “public domain,” declined comment. Olson did not respond for comment. The National Institutes of Health declined comment. Julie Molloy, Astrolabe’s attorney, did not respond for comment.

The atlases in question, according to the suit, “set forth interpretations of historical time zone information pertaining to innumerable locations throughout the world, based upon the compilation of historical research and documentation regarding applicable time zones officially and/or in actuality in effect, given the actual latitude and longitudes of specific locations throughout the world.”

The suit, which claims the defendants “unlawfully deprived” Astrolabe of income, seeks unspecified damages.

Photo: {bad contact, no biscuit}/Flickr

Hat Tip: The Daily Parker