Joho the Blog » state department

May 11, 2013

Hangin’ with Secretary Kerry

Back when the Digital Public Library of America was gearing up, I oddly got invited to participate in a day of brainstorming about what could be done to make the US. State Department Diplomatic Reception Rooms more accessible to the public.

diplomatic reception room

About twenty of us spent the day talking in the Rooms themselves, and we also got a tour of some of the inner offices on Secretary Clinton’s floor. I don’t know how much the day helped the State Department, but it was certainly an interesting day for me. I think my only contribution was suggesting (along with Martin Kalfatovic) that State give the DPLA its spreadsheet of objects + metadata, which I think they are getting close to doing.

The Rooms are ornate and even palatial, which strikes a discordant note for a humble democracy. On the other hand, are we supposed to pretend to visiting dignitaries that the U.S.A. can’t afford to do up a room real nice? And, most important, the rooms are filled with 5,000 museum-quality pieces of furniture, paintings, ceramics, and bric-a-brac, many with particular historic significance, such as the desk on which the Treaty of Paris was signed. You could spend days there just admiring the objects on display…if you were lucky enough to be invited to a workshop held in these rooms. Or, I suppose, if you were a visiting head of state with a surprisingly light schedule.

Treaty of Paris desk (cc) Martin Kalfatovic

But what’s perhaps oddest about the Rooms is that they are stuck inside the Harry S. Truman Building, the State Department’s headquarters.

Harry S. Truman building

The building was designed in the 1950s, was dedicated in 1961, and from the outside looks like an upscale high school. Its large open lobby is quite pleasing, and must have been more so before all the security machinery was installed. Then the elevators open onto the 8th floor and you’re in a dream of the 18th century.

So, last night I went to a reception in the Rooms for people who had contributed to them. Very much a pinstripe and wingtip affair for the guys, and whatever is the suitable generalization for the women. There were perhaps 100 people there, and I can guarantee that every person there contributed far more to the Rooms than I had. Many had donated very substantial sums of money, for the Rooms are paid for and maintained entirely by donations; no tax payer money was harmed by these rooms. Other people have put in considerable time and effort. Not me. But I was in DC for the morning, so I had accepted the invitation.

It was a big enough occasion to rope Secretary Kerry into attending. He appeared about twenty minutes after it began, and the experienced handlers at State immediately had us form a line. As you approach Sec. Kerry, you hand a card with your name on it to an assistant; you were given this card when you went through security. You approach the Secretary as your name is read, alas, with no trumpets. The Secretary says something placeholdery to you if he doesn’t know you from Adam, puts his arm around you, and smiles for the camera. What a job.

To me the Secretary pleasantly said — having just heard my name announced — “Dr. David Douglas Weinberger. That’s a very long name.”

I’d say that that was the most insipid thing I’d ever heard, but I’m afraid I topped it. “I voted for you many times,” said I.

I was surprisingly flustered. When he put his long arm around me, I put mine around his waist, which I think violated both protocol and security procedures. I was not wrestled to the ground, and the Secretary handled it like a pro. Not me. I’m pretty sure I was staring at his collar when when the photo was taken. The man wears a beautiful collar.

Smile. Click. Next.

John Kerry speaking
Click to see a bigger but still blurry photo of Sec. Kerry speaking

After the reception line, Secretary Kerry gave some quite appropriate remarks about the importance of our history despite its comparative brevity, and about the good in the world the US does, pointing specifically to the seven-fold increase in the number of kids in school in Afghanistan, and the rise from single digits to 40+% enrollment of girls. If you’re going to pick examples of US beneficence, that’s a good’un. John Kerry is smart and serious and I am happy to have him as our Secretary of State, although I’ll be happier once Ed Markey wins the election to be his replacement in the Senate.

Then it was time for massive mingling, which is never my strong suit. There was a table of excellent all-American cheeses, and a variety of all-American wines. As the bartender pointed out each wine’s state of origin, she noted that wines are made in every state. “Even Nebraska?” I asked rather randomly. “I didn’t say they were all good,” she replied, thus confirming that she is not a State Department employee and never will be.

I spent a lot of time in the comfort of Martin [twitter: UDCMRK] and Mary Kalfatovic, DPLA buddies and people I am enormously fond of. After about 30 minutes of post-Kerry mingling, we went out for Thai food.

Thus we departed the locale of what certainly should be an upcoming Nicolas Cage movie — National Treasure: Diplomatic Reception — with the Abigail Adams tiara in my pocket and no one the wiser.

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September 5, 2012

Innovation at the State Dept.

I just read Revolution@State, a pretty amazing report by the Lowy Institute, an independent policy think tank, about the extent and depth of e-diplomacy initiatives at the State Department.

I came away with several impressions:

  • The Internet and social networking are central to how State does its business

  • The Net and social networking are transforming how State does its business

  • The Net is bringing about cultural changes at State

That third point is for me the most striking. The State Department has been hypersensitive about security. While that of course remains part of State’s DNA, the Department is also becoming realistic about the gains that can be made by not reflexively shutting down every proposal. For example, the Lowry report writes:

At a Twitter training course for State Department employees attended by the author, the 50 or so officers present — some of whom admitted to never having used social media — were exhorted to give it a go, you can’t go wrong. Policy guidane was barely mentioned.

Closer edamination reveals why this has not led to disaster. To begin with you are dealing with highly educated employees with a strong desire to keep their jobs…

Likewise, the report cites a new willingness to experiment and fail, which is essential for innovation but anathema to State’s traditional culture. Implicit in many of the initiatives, there is new emphasis on Need to Share rather than Need to Know; the latter policy optimizes for security at the cost of intelligence.

The report goes through the many offices directly involved in e-diplomacy, but singles out the 80-person E-Diplomacy group for special focus and praise, lauding its entrepreneurial spirit. That’s the group I’m proud to have been attached to that group for two years as a State Department Franklin Fellow, and, as they say at Reddit, I can confirm.

If you’ve had any interaction with the State Department — where in my limited experience I have met true patriots — you know that it is one of the least likely institutions to hop on the Internet train. I’d give credit to the transformation to three factors:

First, starting with Colin Powell, continued by Condaleeza Rice, and especially with Secretary Clinton (and her choice of Alec Ross (twitter) and until recently Ben Scott), the leadership has embraced these changes.

Second, groups like E-Diplomacy have served State by building tools that serve State’s needs, and have at the same time modeled the webby way of doing business. One great example is Corridor, State’s new professional networking environment, specially tuned to the needs and norms of State Dept. employees.

Third, the State Department’s 80,000 employees are on the ground around the world. This means that the organization is fundamentally reality-based, even when the leadership gets warped by politics. These Net-based initiatives are being embraced because they work. Likewise for the Net-based culture that is infusing State as more of the world and more State Dept. employees go online. Leaders of the e-initiatives such as E-Diplomacy’s Richard Boly combine a drive to achieve pragmatic results with an entrepreneurial appreciation of failure as a key tool for success.

I acknowledge that my personal experience of the State Department is warped by the amount of time I’ve gotten to spend with its webbiest elements. But I’ve also seen tangible evidence that a belief in openness, innovation, and connection is taking root there. The Lowy report confirms that. Worth reading.


February 16, 2011

In praise of what Secretary Clinton did not say about Wikileaks

Especially when a prepared talk is being given in the midst of a difficult controversy, most of what matters is in what is not said. For that reason, I think Secretary Clinton’s speech on Net Freedom yesterday was actually quite encouraging about the State Department’s attitude toward Wikileaks. In this I seem to differ with many of my friends and colleagues. (See, for example, this thread from the Berkman mailing list. See also Mathew Ingram. Ethan Zuckerman posts his overall reaction, plus a brilliant draft speech he’d suggested Clinton deliver. Yochai Benkler has posted a draft of a paper [pdf] that — with Yochai’s accustomed astounding command of facts, law, argument, and moral insight — assails the claimed grounds for prosecuting Wikileaks) [Disclosure: I am a Franklin Fellow at the State Dept., attached to the group that works on the internal use of social media. This is a non-paying fellowship, and I feel no obligation to make nice, although I’m human.]

Secretary Clinton spent a substantial portion of her talk discussing Wikileaks.

The Internet’s strong culture of transparency derives from its power to make information of all kinds available instantly. But in addition to being a public space, the Internet is also a channel for private conversations. For that to continue, there must be protection for confidential communication online.

Think of all the ways in which people and organizations rely on confidential communication to do their jobs. Businesses hold confidential conversations when they’re developing new products, to stay ahead of their competitors. Journalists keep the details of some sources confidential, to protect them from retribution.

And governments also rely on confidential communication—online as well as offline. The existence of connection technologies may make it harder to maintain confidentiality, but it does not change the need for it.

Government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of Wikileaks. It’s been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the Wikileaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.

Some have suggested that this act was justified, because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of their work out in the open, in the full view of their citizens.

I disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our most sensitive operations.

Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise. Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists will find the nuclear material and steal it.

Or consider the content of the documents that Wikileaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by Wikileaks relate to human rights work carried out around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It’s dangerous work. By publishing the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks exposed people to even greater risk.

For operations like these, confidentiality is essential, especially in the Internet age, when dangerous information can be sent around the world with the click of a keystroke.

Of course, governments also have a duty to be transparent. We govern with the consent of the people, and that consent must be informed to be meaningful. So we must be judicious about when we close off our work to the public and review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous. In the United States, we have laws to ensure that the government makes its work open to the people. The Obama Administration has also launched unprecedented initiatives to put government data online, encourage citizen participation, and generally increase the openness of government.

The U.S. government’s ability to protect America — to secure the liberties of our people — and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should remain out of the public domain. The scale will always be tipped in favor of openness. But tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests—and the public’s least of all.

Let me be clear. I said that we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that Wikileaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.

One final word on this matter. There were reports in the days following the leak that the U.S. government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to Wikileaks. This is not the case. Some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from Wikileaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. But any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama Administration.

Now, one way to read this is to imagine what you wish Clinton had said, or what you would have said if given the opportunity. That certainly has its uses. But it’s essentially a daydream, for it acts as if high-visibility political speeches occur outside of political consequences and negotiations. (Ethan’s imagining, noted above, was within a pragmatic context, attempting to provide a vision for the talk.) If instead we take this speech as the result of a political struggle, then we have to hear not just the daydream, but the nightmare: Forces within the government must have been urging Clinton to take a hard line against Wikileaks and to use Wikileaks as a justification for constraining the Internet. When you consider all that Clinton does not say about Wikileaks, this speech is actually, in my view, quite encouraging. Indeed, in saying that “It’s been a false debate in many ways,” she does not narrow the criticism to the media’s participation; we are left to assume that she is also scolding elements of the government.

You say “Pshaw!” to the idea that this is a pretty enlightened speech? I understand that reaction, since this address is coming from a government that has reacted overall quite poorly to the Wikileaks leaks. (See especially Yochai Benkler’s comments in the Berkman thread and his comprehensive article.)( But that’s exactly why we ought to view the speech as a sign of hope that at least some elements of the government are catching on to what the Net is about, what it’s for, and what it can and cannot do. (“What the Net can and cannot do” is, from my point of view, pretty much the theme of the entire speech, which by itself is encouraging.)

Here’s an example of what I mean by reading the speech in light of what it does not say. Secretary Clinton does say that the Wikileaks incident “began with an act of theft.” But, she is careful not to say that Wikileaks was the thief. Instead, she refers to Wikileaks as making the documents public, as releasing them, and as publishing them. You can imagine the pressure on her to characterize Wikileaks as the source of the documents — as the thief — rather than as the recipient and publisher of them. (She does slip in an ambiguous phrase: “we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase.”)

Overall, I read the Wikileaks section of the speech as a refusal to blame the Internet, and as a refusal to issue threats against Wikileaks (and against the next Wikileaks-like site). True, Secretary Clinton “condemns” the leaks, but given the range of options for a Secretary of State, what else would you expect? That she would condone the indiscriminate leaking of confidential information? It’s confidential. Of course she’s going to condemn leaks, and in no uncertain terms.

The question is what follows from that condemnation. What followed were not threats against Wikileaks, not a clamping down on State Department security to ensure that “this never happens again,”not a retreat from Clinton’s emphasis on building a “need to share culture” within State, and not support for new policies that would put “reasonable” controls on the Internet to “ensure” that such “illegal acts” never recur, for “a free Internet does not mean a lawless Internet.” (All items in quotes are phrases I’ve made up but that I can imagine some in the government insisting be inserted.) The only statement about policies to address such leaks says that the Obama Administration did not “coerce” private companies to act to shut down (or shut off) Wikileaks; the clear implication is that the government should not engage in such coercion.

Now, we can imagine our own preferred words coming out of Secretary Clinton’s mouth, and we certainly can and should compare her statements with the actual behavior of State and the government overall. There was room for her to have gone further; I would have liked it better if she had, as per Yochai’s suggestion, acknowledged that State initially over-reacted in some chilling ways. But, in the context of the political debate, I think Secretary Clinton’s remarks on Wikileaks are encouraging, and her explicit rejection of limiting Internet freedom because sometimes leaks happen is hopeful.

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