SECSTATE | Telegraphic Messages

photo by Independent Balkan News Agency

One of the jobs I learned early on with the Office of Communications during my domestic assignment at Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia was how to read and compose telegraphic messages.

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All classified and unclassified telegraphic messages from U.S. missions (American embassies, consulates) worldwide terminated at the U.S. Department of State. The addressee was SECSTATE, literally the Secretary of State. As of January 20, 1977, newly appointed Secretary of State Cyrus Vance took over responsibility for all telegraphic traffic at the Department. Of course, Mr. Vance read only the really important classified messages labeled “for the Secretary” or highly confidential messages as thousand of telegraphic messages were processed daily for government officials at the State Department.

Telegraphic Messages

The telegraphic messages, collectively called “traffic” resided within the State Department building (sometimes also referred to as SECSTATE) where an army of operators and technicians tended to lines of Teletype machines such as the Collins model HW-28 that chattered like cicada bugs in July. Volumes of daily traffic were received, sent, archived, printed out, and forwarded.

During the late 1970’s my organization, the Office of Communications, Programs and Engineering—OC/PE—was in the process of changing out the mechanical Teletype systems with the computerized TERP (Terminal Equipment Replacement Program) at SECSTATE and worldwide.

At overseas missions the crypto techs maintained all the Teletype equipment (and later TERP). Of the radio, telephone, and radio groups at OC the crypto techs had the most critical job. If the ambassador couldn’t use the telephone, he shook his head. If he couldn’t use his radio, he made note of it. If he couldn’t send a NIACT Immediate, CONFIDENTIAL message to SECSTATE he would be banging on the door of the CPU (Communications Programs Unit) no matter what time it was. At most missions overseas the CPU was manned 24/7.

Message Precedence and Classification

Each message had two criteria. The first criteria was precedence (speed).

  • Flash message: “Holy crap! The barn’s on fire!”
  • NIACT Immediate message: NIACT means Night-Action (“Get your butt out of bed!”).
  • Priority message: Drop what you’re doing during normal duty hours.
  • Immediate message: Hurry up, but don’t sweat it (one step above routine).
  • Routine message: The bottom of the stack.

The second criteria (what populates spy novels) is classification (how important classified documents are to national security).

  • Top Secret (TS): Unauthorized disclosure causes grave danger to national security.
  • Secret: Unauthorized disclosure causes serious danger to national security.
  • Confidential: Unauthorized disclosure causes danger to national security.
  • Limited Official Use: Unclassified information of a serious nature.
  • Unclassified: not classified, but can be dangerous if mishandled (more on this later)

Why am I bringing all of this up? In future messages I will be alluding to precedence and classification often.

The Allure of the State Department Building

I enjoyed polishing my shoes and putting on a dress shirt for a visit to the State Department building. As I walked through the wide doors and showed my I.D. I held my head higher. Off to the right, I always gazed up at the names of all the Foreign Service personnel who were killed in the line of duty, engraved in the wall.

I made all my travel arrangements at the commercial DOS travel office there. Adventure beckoned when I walked through the doors. The girls that worked at the travel office were all chatty and attractive. When I reached for the thick envelope containing itinerary and travel tickets it might as well have been stuffed with hundred dollar bills.

Across from the travel office, the library quiet Foreign Service lounge had extremely comfortable chairs. My guess was that Ambassadors on leave ruminated about Presidents, Premiers, Kings, generals, and dictators that were running the country they just left. My boss, Norm Bates, might have formulated his 60/40 hypothesis in the lounge. Basically, Norm stated that an OC tech could expect his job to be 60% technical and 40% well… bullshit.

The Department of State’s lounge was great place to people watch. Sometimes I’d spend a full morning or afternoon working on travel vouchers there. The huge building’s labyrinth of floors and corridors were all numbered and color-coded, but I managed to get lost on one occasion. I had no trouble finding the DOS cafeteria. The food wasn’t bad and you never knew whom you might run into. I think I saw Shirley Temple, but its not like Hollywood where you ran up for an autograph. We were professionals, you know.

Next time I will dig deeper into what constitutes a telegraphic message and why classified documents are so important other than populating spy novels with intriguing plots…



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