So what exactly are "cables"?
November 28, 2010 11:48 AM   Subscribe

The WikiLeaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables, as detailed in this New York Times article, left me wondering a few things...

Throughout the story, I wondered what exactly constituted "cables," as more than half of the diplomatic messages released are from 2007 or later. The NYT offers this brief explanation near the end (on page 4) of the story:

"In an era of satellites and fiber-optic links, the diplomatic cable retains the archaic name of an earlier technological era. It has long been the tool for the secretary of state to dispatch orders to the field and for ambassadors and political officers to send their analyses back to Washington."

The paragraph after that details some of the specialized lexicon still used to describe different types of "cables." But what I want to know is, how are "cables" transmitted and stored? Is there a proprietary system that connects the U.S. to its embassies? I feel like that's an important part of trying to understand the story of their unauthorized release, and the Times account confused me with its omission of those sorts of technical details.

Page 3 of the story notes that some of the cables go back as far as 1979. So it sounds like the body of U.S. diplomatic cables must have been moved from system to system, archive to archive, over the years, as it seems like there's no way the government could still be using the same computer systems to send cables as they were back in 1979—could it?

To recap, these are the things I'm wondering:

1. What is a "cable" today, and how are they transmitted? Is there a specific, proprietary system in place that connects the U.S. government to its embassies, via which such messages are sent?

2. Given today's technology, how does a cable now differ from, say, an email or text message? Are such messages only accessible via government-owned software and/or terminals on either end? Are they specially encrypted in transit or sent via some other special protocol as well? Do they go over special government-owned fiber-optic links, or through special government-owned satellites?

3. Does anyone—any government archivists out there?—know anything about how U.S. diplomatic cables have generally been transmitted, stored, and archived over the years? Is it possible that the U.S. is using a legacy system for these communications that goes back decades? Or is it more likely that the U.S. has simply moved the messages from system to system as it's upgraded over the years?

4. How far back does digitization of U.S. archives of diplomatic cables go?

Thanks in advance for any light anyone can shed on this—I'm just really curious about the technology behind the story!
posted by limeonaire to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Also, this previous AskMe from September had some interesting information about consumer-available "cables" or "cablegrams"—is any of that relevant to the questions above?
posted by limeonaire at 11:51 AM on November 28, 2010

The Guardian article has some information on this: "Siprnet is a worldwide US military internet system, kept separate from the ordinary civilian internet and run by the defence department in now the vast majority of US missions worldwide are linked to the system.

This means that a diplomatic dispatch marked Sipdis is automatically downloaded on to its embassy's classified website. From there it can be accessed not only by anyone in the state department, but also by anyone in the US military who has a computer connected to Siprnet. Millions of US soldiers and officials have "secret" security clearance."
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:11 PM on November 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Mm, interesting, Infinite Jest! I would love more details about all of this, how it evolved, etc. I guess I can start by reading about Siprnet...

Hmm. Actually, a link from the Siprnet Wikipedia article about RIPR, or the network connecting the U.S. and South Korea, kind of addresses the other thing I thought of after posting this, namely how cables are sent securely from officials of the U.S. to officials of other countries. Maybe there are multiple RIPR-like networks? Or maybe JWICS serves that purpose?

(Before I read about RIPR, I was thinking about the logistics of secure communications between countries and was kind of amused by the idea that perhaps the U.S. was sending these top-secret communiqués to other countries, only to have them printed out and brought to the relevant parties by courier or something on the other end...)
posted by limeonaire at 12:29 PM on November 28, 2010

Der Spiegel has posted a Wikileaks FAQ, which might answer some of your questions.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:49 PM on November 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

2.5 million people had access to it? That can't be the good stuff, then.
posted by empath at 1:23 PM on November 28, 2010

Empath: somewhere else on the Guardian it said that this system was only for material classified up to Secret - so nothing classified Top Secret or above (I'm not sure what system the US uses, but I know that other countries have ratings above Top Secret). And in the Der Spiegel link posted by Jacqueline it says that 40% of them were only Confidential (which is even lower than Secret).

It certainly wasn't very secure if someone could plug in a CD or USB drive and burn secret material to it. (I've worked in secure environments; all USB ports and external drives were removed or locked down).
posted by Infinite Jest at 1:42 PM on November 28, 2010

I'd just like to point out that it's incredibly common for government agencies to have legacy terminology. Where I work, we "prong file" things that are to be kept permanently, even though the file is electronic and doesn't have any metal prongs anymore.

The Office of the Historian keeps track of many of these State Department records and edits the declassified Foreign Relations of the United States, which has been mired in controversy, including an Office of the Inspector General investigation.
posted by Jahaza at 1:45 PM on November 28, 2010

"RIPR" is used to connect US forces in Korea with ROK forces in Korea, for both Command and Control as well as routine classified communication. It has a reach-back to some stateside military bases that would provide reserve and call-up capabilities that would be deployed in defense of South Korea. (The term "RIPR", regardless of what Wikipedia says, is not used in country. It was floated in 2002 or 2003 (along with "ROKUSNET" and "RMIL") as a concept that the network infrastructure should be operated and managed distinctly from the services it provided.)

As of a few years ago, it was not connected to State inside the beltway nor the US Embassy in Seoul; I'm pretty sure it'll never be connected to the (South Korean) Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Maybe there are multiple RIPR-like networks?
Yes. They fall under the CENTRIXS umbrella. They connect two or more countries together to share up to secret/releasable information. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA)'s MultiNational Information Sharing (MNIS) Program Management Office (PMO) runs the CENTRIXS program.

I coined ROKUSNET, but was overruled. I'm not bitter, really...
posted by panmunjom at 4:03 PM on November 28, 2010

Interesting stuff so far—thanks! I found a few more relevant items noted back in the thread about the cables on the blue. I'll have to go back through this previous Top Secret America post, for instance. elpapacito had an interesting take on the Guardian's numbers here. mnemonic further refined that take—apparently information classified "secret" within SIPRNet is only available on a need-to-know basis? Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese speculated, however, that perhaps there are some people who have access to more than just need-to-know material. I wonder what's actually the case.

Between all of that and your notes above, I feel like I have a better idea of how present-day government "cables" work, but some things still aren't fleshed out. I'm sure there are some portions of how this works that are themselves classified. What little I've learned thus far, though, is fascinating!
posted by limeonaire at 5:46 PM on November 28, 2010

Worked in Embassy London - FWIW the cable system was somewhat rudimentary, running on a proprietary version of something that operated similarly to Outlook Express or Lotus Notes - basically a rough email system. Things were archived (unknown for how long, but I could browse back decades) and terminals were kept in a confidential area.
posted by msbutah at 5:53 PM on November 28, 2010

More info about CENTRIXS and associated frameworks Griffin and CFBLNet here, here, here, and here. It's interesting to me just how much information about this stuff is available once you know the proper keywords/acronyms!
posted by limeonaire at 5:56 PM on November 28, 2010

Siprnet: where America stores its secret cables
posted by adamvasco at 4:18 AM on November 29, 2010

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