The more confidential documents you have, the less confidential they become

Posted on November 30, 2010 by

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Like everything else, confidentiality is affected by the law of inflation. The multiplication of the inflated object (usually money) reduces its value. There are various reasons behind the growing number of confidential documents in diplomatic services. Aside from the fact that the sheer volume of one’s reporting is very often a major career ‘barometer’, diplomats often assign confidentiality to their reports in order to increase their value.

The problem of proper reporting, including confidentiality, was described very well by the former Egyptian Ambassador to the USA, Nabil Fahmy: ‘When I came to Washington less than three years ago, I basically decided I would not compete with the media in sending information to Egypt. It was a futile attempt to get it there first. So I stopped reporting most current information. I assumed that people had the news back home because they watched CNN.’ It was back in the late 1990s, before the Internet revolution, when Ambassador Fahmy shifted approximately 80% of his confidential cable traffic to open, non-secure conduits. He figured that by the time it reached his colleagues back in Egypt, the information was fairly well-known anyway. ‘The only thing I actually sent confidentially is opinion – my opinion, somebody else’s opinion, criticism of my own government, criticism of the US government. That’s all I send confidentially.’

This shift in cable traffic has had another benefit, Ambassador Fahmy confessed: ‘It is now more likely that my communications are actually read. Previously, when a large volume of information was sent, it was dangerous to assume that everything was actually read or reached the appropriate person. Now the contents of cable traffic – sensitive opinions about world affairs – are more likely to be considered important and read attentively.’

Something to think about post-CableGate, when many diplomats will intuitively opt for more confidentiality.