Foreign Service Telegram Speak and Related Illnesses

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In the late 1970’s, the telegraphic message was to the Foreign Service like the M-16 rifle was to the U.S. Army. Both wielded a sense of diplomacy and every soldier (and Foreign Service Officer) was “behooved” to know how to use each. In the case of the telegraphic message, words replaced bullets, and could be just as effective.

Less Words are Always Better

The chosen words and how they were used were the secret. Less was always better. Acronyms were formed for practically any phrase of three or more words. The U.S. Department of State (DOS) would break the Guinness Book of World Records for the use of acronyms (if they had such a category). Before OMG, BFF, and LOL, there were POV, DOS, LOU and thousands more.

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The closer a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) got to the message center—the CRU, the Communications & Records Unit (that became the Communications Programs Unit in the late 1970’s) the more littered was one’s speech with acronyms and void of articles and pronouns.

Here’s an overblown example of acronym banter where I’m BS’ing with a fellow OC bandit:

“Man, I thought I was SOL. There was a SNAFU with the shipment of my POV. I sent an LOU message to CONGEN Karachi for a SITREP. The RCO replied ASAP with an FYI that the PAO required a copy of my travel orders from OPM before shipment.”

Translation: I was concerned about the shipment of my car from Washington D.C. to Karachi, Pakistan. There was a problem with the travel orders. I sent a telegram to the American Consulate General in Karachi. My future boss, the Regional Communications Officer, got back to me quickly. He had contacted the Public Affairs Officer, the person responsible for vehicle shipments, and was told that the PAO needed a copy of my travel orders from the Office of Personnel Management before he could proceed.

The Origins of Radio Telegraphic Messages

The reason for all the acronyms goes back to the origins of the telegraphic message. Telegraph companies charged by the word. Without getting technical, in the old days the telegraphic messages were fed into HF (High Frequency) radios that transmitted to relay points hundreds of miles away. These HF radios were very inefficient for sending data comprised of many pages of telegrams. Early on the State Department devised ways to limit the amount of words. They focused on reducing the size of words and limiting their use.

  • Acronyms reduced the word count
  • Articles like “a” and “the” were omitted
  • Pronouns were omitted
  • Long words were reduced to short words (by abbreviation)
  • Telegram messages were brief and pointed

In old black and white movies you’ll probably remember someone reading a telegram and they would keep uttering, “STOP.” The stop replaced the period since punctuation marks weren’t transmitted in telegrams way back when.

From a 1928 handbook | “HOW TO WRITE TELEGRAMS PROPERLY”

How to Save Words—Naturally, there is a right way and a wrong way of wording telegrams. The right way is economical, the wrong way, wasteful. If the telegram is packed full of unnecessary words, words which might be omitted without impairing the sense of the message, the sender has been guilty of economic waste. Not only has he failed to add anything to his message, but also he has slowed it up by increasing the time necessary to transmit it. He added to the volume of traffic from a personal and financial point of view, he has been wasteful because he has spent more for his telegram than was necessary. In the other extreme, he may have omitted words necessary to the sense, thus sacrificing clearness in his eagerness to save a few cents.

Foreign Service acronyms that I used:

  • AMB              The ambassador at a mission
  • Am Embassy  American Embassy
  • Am Con Gen   American Consulate General
  • ASAP              As soon as possible
  • BS                   Bull Shit
  • CEO                Communication Electronic Officer
  • CIA                 Central Intelligence Agency
  • CM                 Chief of Mission
  • COMSEC       Communications Security
  • CON               Consular section overseas
  • CONGEN       American Consulate General
  • CPO                Communications Programs Officer
  • CRO                Communications & Records Officer
  • CT                   Counter Terrorism
  • DAO               Defense Attaché Office
  • DCM              Deputy Chief of Mission (#2)
  • DEP DIR        Deputy Director
  • DEA                Drug Enforcement Agency
  • DIR                 Director
  • DOS                Department of State
  • E&E                Escape and Evacuation
  • ECON             Economic section
  • FS                    Foreign Service
  • FSN                 Foreign Service National (local employee at American mission)
  • FSO                 Foreign Service Officer
  • FYI                  For your information
  • GAO               Government Accounting Office
  • GSA                General Services Administration
  • GSO                General Service Officer
  • HHE                Household Effects
  • LOU                Limited Official Use
  • LMR               Land mobile radio
  • MSG               Marine Security Guard
  • OC                  Office of Communications
  • OC/PE             Office of Communications/Programs Engineering
  • OCR                Optical Character Reader
  • OPM               Office of Personnel Management
  • PAO                Public Affairs Officer
  • PNG                Persona Non Grata (when diplomat kicked out of a country)
  • PER                 Personnel
  • POL                Political Section
  • POV                Privately Owned Vehicle
  • PSO                 Post Security Officer
  • RSO                Regional Security Officer
  • RCO                Regional Communication Officer
  • SEC                 Security
  • SEPTEL          Separate Telegram
  • SITREP           Situation Report
  • SECSTATE    Secretary of State
  • SNAFU           Situation Normal All Fucked Up
  • SOL                 Shit out of luck
  • SY                   State Department security
  • TAGS             Traffic analysis by group and subject
  • TCN                Third Country National
  • TBD                To be determined
  • TDY                Temporary Duty
  • TERP              Terminal Equipment Replacement Program
  • TM                 Travel Message
  • TS                   Top Secret
  • TTY                Teletype
  • USG                U.S. Government

At a large mission such as Am Embassy London thousands of telegraphic messages were sent and received daily. No doubt CPU operators experienced unreported bouts of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. The TTY keyboards weren’t as sensitive as today’s computer keyboards.  One can imagine the amount of paperwork that was generated. For example, a single messaged generated at SECSTATE may be addressed to several embassies and various offices within each embassy.

The CRU distributed copies of the telegram to the offices within the embassy. Each office (POL, ECON, RSO, RCO, ADMIN…) would send someone up to the CRU to collect his or her traffic frequently. Likewise, offices would take “burn bags” up to CRU containing classified messages to be disposed of. Before the advent of the paper shredder, the telegrams were burned in an incinerator on the “top floor” of the embassy.

Undoubtedly you’ve seen spy movies where the embassy in under siege and the diplomats are rapidly destroying all the electronic data on disks of classified documents… In the old days that task wasn’t so easy.


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