In the rush to read emails on the television preferences of former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonElise Stefanik seeks to tackle GOP’s women ‘crisis’ ahead of 2020 Russian pop star linked to Trump Tower meeting cancels US tour Graham angers Dems by digging into Clinton, Obama controversies MORE, little attention is being paid to how and why most American diplomats communicate.  The more significant issue is the effect this episode will have on the practice of diplomacy.  Based on my experience, the impact will likely be profound and problematic.  Diplomats will much more heavily self-censor.  Those that don’t think to will be regularly reminded of this issue in classes at the Foreign Service Institute.  They will often drop their unclassified analysis and leave out important color and details in their emails.  This will significantly diminish the speed and the quality of reporting from the field to Washington.  In the end, changing how diplomats communicate will have grave implications for the national security of the United States.

Like many others at the State Department, I was astonished that Secretary Clinton chose to exclusively use personal email for official communications.  Whether or not there existed an explicit directive at the time, it ran contrary to what we were told about handling official information.  Furthermore, what was coming from or going to the Secretary would be of great interest to foreign governments, even if the information wasn’t especially sensitive or explicitly classified. Yet, I also appreciate the challenges faced by someone coming into the Department from the outside, trying to communicate via a woefully outdated system.


The State Department has one of the worst records in the U.S. government for keeping up with technology.  Ostensibly the department is so concerned about the potential for foreign intelligence agencies to penetrate new technology, they study it – for years.  They were still using Wang computer systems in the early 2000s and only migrated to personal computers on the insistence of former Secretary Colin Powell.  The version of Microsoft Office I used at State was several years out of date.  Adding apps to or using most of the latest software on a phone or desktop wasn’t possible.  So, the decision to skip the hassle of State’s antiquated systems is somewhat understandable.  Yet, she didn’t just find a workaround for herself.  Secretary Clinton also deserves a great deal of credit for expending an exceptional amount of time and energy trying to get State to modernize.  She and her team pushed hard for diplomats to be able to use such modern communications innovations such as social media, over the strong objections of the information management department.

Good diplomacy isn’t done from behind a computer.  Unlike most government employees in Washington, Foreign Service officers spend an inordinate amount of time away from the office.  New fortress embassies, far out of town, have made it difficult to get many contacts to come in for meetings.  I would spend upwards of a third of my time up country and even more downtown.  Indeed one of the real values of still having diplomats on the ground overseas is to get a full perspective on the realities in a country.  I would often shoot off unclassified email updates on my Blackberry to staff at the embassy or in Washington, especially if there were pressing events or insights.

So what happens now?  Because of the scrutiny by politicians who never had to practice diplomacy, Foreign Service officers will likely be forced to communicate even mildly sensitive messages via classified channels.  If you are traveling, this means waiting days to transmit the information back to the embassy or Washington.  What’s more, you wont be allowed to write down notes from these meetings, as they too would be considered classified.  Diplomats will end up storing it in their head.  They will then have the unenviable task of later recalling and transposing from memory, the details of multiple meetings into a classified system.  The alternative would be to call it in over phone, which makes it even more susceptible to interception by foreign adversaries. 

A more practical approach is needed.  New guidelines that reflect the realities of the 21st century and the practice of diplomacy ought to be developed.  Sometimes sensitive information has to be urgently sent by less secure means.  Congress and the State Department need to take a clear position on how and when sensitive information can be sent in such circumstances. Otherwise, the takeaway from this investigation will be to over classify, causing information to be lost and critical issues not addressed in time.  As my former colleague Mark Toner rightfully points out, classification is an art, not a science.  It’s also one best practiced by the subject matter experts.  The guidance given to diplomats should be: communicate - especially in circumstances when sensitive or classified information needs to be urgently transmitted.  No one feels the consequences of information breaches more that diplomats in the field and they should be empowered to make that call.

There are many lessons to be learned from the former Secretary’s email habits.  One of them should not be to punish our diplomats for trying to get critical information into the hands of those making policy in a timely and pragmatically protected way. Certainly, programs and procedures need to be reinforced to ensure that classified information is not exposed and sensitive information sent via unclassified channels is protected.  One of the best career officers I know, Tim Davis, was criticized for sending updates on Benghazi via unclassified channel to the former secretary.  In the midst of a crisis it’s more often better to communicate than not.  Getting to a classified area, inside a secure facility is not always an option.  We should support our diplomats’ efforts to get policymakers essential information by whatever means possible.  Otherwise, we may find ourselves inviting tragedy, because the officer in the field was told whatever they do – don’t send sensitive messages on a Blackberry.

Bruen is president of the consulting firm the Global Situation Room.  He was director of Global Engagement at the White House and spent twelve years in the Foreign Service.  He was posted to Ivory Coast, Venezuela, Iraq, and Madagascar.