Diplomatic Reporting: Adapting to the Information Age

While technology enhances brainpower, it is no substitute for the seasoned diplomat’s powers of observation and assessment, argues this veteran consumer of diplomatic reporting.


As an analyst or manager of government analysts for more than 25 years, I acquired a deep appreciation for diplomatic reporting. That does not mean I romanticize it, however. U.S. policy formulation, which depends on reliable diplomatic reporting, is a hardscrabble business, not an ivory-tower pursuit.

Not all of the reporting I saw was useful or well-sourced, any more than was the output of other agencies over the same period. Reporting was not a high priority for some embassies, and others simply lacked the talent to excel at it. The ideological bent of powerful policymakers and ambassadors at times suppressed or distorted analysis on important issues. Occasionally, high-quality reports were sadly late in arriving.

That said, I came to respect diplomatic reporting and analysis from the field. It added to my knowledge of the local stage and its key actors, broadened my perspective on potential outcomes, deepened my understanding of complex issues and tested my own, sometimes-rigid assumptions—all building critical context for the judgments I made.

Accomplished diplomats, who artfully captured ground truth while skillfully pegging the story to U.S. interests, always informed, sometimes entertained and often had real impact. They helped to reduce the confusion and uncertainty faced by senior decision-makers and government analysts in Washington.

The Record Is Clear

Timely and insightful reporting from U.S. diplomats has given meaning to major geopolitical transformations in Latin America, Europe and Asia, as well as to persistent or escalating violence and conflict in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia. More recently, Foreign Service officers have ably tracked and assessed a host of transnational threats ranging from terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyberoperations and narco-trafficking to natural disasters, organized crime, trafficking in women and children, infectious diseases, global financial crises and climate change. And in today’s interconnected world, the list only grows.

Since the 1980s, diplomats have seen both their workplace and the world they cover turned upside down by the continuing revolution in information technology. Yet the work of veteran diplomats and the emergence of a new generation of tech-savvy Foreign Service officers have made clear that diplomatic reporting is still, fundamentally, a people business.

Technology can increase efficiency, but it still takes brainpower to produce succinct reports that creatively combine breadth, depth and clear policy relevance. A quick survey of some of my own career experiences will reinforce this point.

Since the 1980s, diplomats have seen both their workplace and the world they cover turned upside down by the continuing revolution in information technology.

Dominican Republic, 1978. On election day, May 16, Antonio Guzman’s Dominican Revolutionary Party, which had been sidelined by President Lyndon Johnson’s Marines in 1965, was perceived to be leading conservative U.S. ally Joaquin Balaguer. The pro-Balaguer army began to seize ballot boxes. Ambassador Robert Yost’s country team reported the story blow by blow through the night into the early morning hours.

This gave me time to get the details into crack-of-dawn intelligence briefings for the senior national security team, and enabled Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to persuade Balaguer’s government to restore the vote count that made Guzman the next president. The run-up to this election also exposed me to the tensions that can arise between Washington’s political biases and reality in the field. Excellent reporting reassured U.S. policymakers that fears of Cuban intervention were not warranted (and, I concluded, may not have been such a big deal back in 1965 when both embassy reporting and policy perspectives set a different tone).

Jamaica, 1980. The charismatic and Castro-friendly incumbent, Prime Minister Michael Manley, faced a serious electoral challenge against the background of a declining economy. As someone who had both studied and taught in Jamaica, I concluded that Manley’s opponent, Edward Seaga, would win because of the centrality of bread-and-butter issues in union-based parties.

Embassy reporting, though less confident of the outcome, gave me lots of material to make my case in what became a heated debate in Washington during the election campaign. I was fortunate to have worked closely with the team of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Viron “Pete” Vaky, which provided me with an early example of the potentiating effect of a collaborative intelligence-policy relationship. I had also been mentored as an analyst by Vaky’s distinguished predecessor, John Crimmins.

In one contentious briefing on the Hill at which some members strongly disputed my analysis, Representative Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., the daughter of West Indian immigrants and the wife of a Jamaican husband, silenced the room with her eloquent assessment of why Seaga was likely to win. He did, with nearly 59 percent of the vote.

Spain, early 1980s: This is another case where, in my judgment, a solid record of informative and insightful embassy reporting helped sometimes skittish Washington policymakers get on the right side of history. Spain was still in an unsteady transition to post-Franco democracy. Right-wing military elements staged an abortive coup in 1981. The Socialists came to power in October 1982 on an anti-NATO platform and with Basque terrorist assassinations of military, security and political leaders on the rise.

Other factors were involved, but I believe that excellent diplomatic reporting encouraged broad U.S. government support for Spain’s fledgling socialist government, for its accession to NATO and the European Union, and for its long fight against a major domestic terrorist threat. Credit goes far and wide, but I recall Political Counselor Bob Service’s pithy and punchy cables as a standard setter.

Emergence of the European Union, mid-1980s. The transformation of the European Economic Community of the mid-1980s into the European Union is a story of consistently outstanding reporting from economic, political and security officers. As instability on the continent increased during the 1990s, security issues took on greater importance in what became a more interdisciplinary approach to analysis of European integration. Ambassador Jim Dobbins’ rich reports from Brussels were always a must-read.

During the rapid transformation of postwar Europe in 1989, countless diplomatic reports contributed to this triumph for U.S. policy.

Eastern Europe Transforms, 1989. This was the most eventful year of my career, as the East European communist regimes began to topple starting with Poland, followed by Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and, finally, Romania in December. In what seemed like a breathless sweep, the Warsaw Pact was history!

A steady flow of useful diplomatic reporting, exceptional interagency collaboration and effective leadership from the White House—along with the refusal of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to resort to violence—minimized the risks during this rapid transformation of postwar Europe. Countless diplomatic reports contributed to this triumph for U.S. policy. I would single out Ambassador Mark Palmer in Hungary as emblematic of the best.

1990-1995: Yugoslavia Breaks Up and the Bosnians Go to War. After the collapse of communist regimes and the implosion of the Soviet Union, there was little appetite in the final years of the Bush 41 administration or in the first years of the Clinton presidency to intervene in the Balkans’ toxic ethnic brawl. I saw firsthand how a steady stream of informative and insightful diplomatic reports educated policymakers on the complex issues, political minefields and increasing risks to broader regional stability of persistent volatility and ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

I particularly recall Ambassador Warren Zimmerman’s thoughtful contributions to the U.S. policy debate on Yugoslavia and his willingness to engage intelligence analysts directly. On Bosnia, Dick Holbrooke assembled a team of workhorses, including Bob Frasure, Chris Hill, Jim Pardew, Nelson Drew and Joe Kruzel, who were especially skilled at reporting rapidly changing developments to Washington decision-makers. They were among the many talented diplomats and policymakers who helped bring about an end to the Bosnian conflict.

China Rises, early 1990s. Government analysts, like diplomats, do not always come out of the gate with the right answer. But they play great catch-up ball! In the early 1990s, I remember mixed views on the impact of Deng Xiaoping’s measured opening of China to the outside world. How would this vast country of a billion people maintain its territorial integrity, internal stability, centralized authoritarian rule and robust economic growth against the stresses that would come with integration into the global economy? How would its military modernization programs affect stability in Asia?

Focused, balanced and forward-looking diplomatic reporting, in my view, has helped Washington to understand both the challenges and the opportunities in China’s rapid rise. The Sino-American relationship has a complex future with varying shades of partnership, competition and rivalry—but hopefully not violent conflict.

A Year of Crises, 1998. The U.S. agenda was upended as India conducted a nuclear test in May, and Pakistan followed quickly; al-Qaida attacked our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August; a global financial crisis that started in Thailand swept through East Asia, provoking serious economic and political turmoil in Indonesia, and eventually walloping President Boris Yeltsin’s Russia; North Korea tried unsuccessfully to launch a satellite; and Saddam Hussein booted United Nations arms inspectors out of Iraq.

Foreign Service reporting reduced the uncertainty associated with all these overlapping events, and enabled policymakers to scale appropriate responses. It helped them to get a hold on Yeltsin’s erratic behavior during an unstable period in the region. It educated U.S. government agencies to the growing threat from al-Qaida terrorists. It shed light on the domestic and regional political implications of the global financial crisis, even though it was a mighty struggle for all of us to get ahead of this fast-moving curve.

INR makes up for small numbers in its impressive analytic expertise and in its intimate connection to State’s indispensable diplomatic reporting.

Three Revolutions

All of these episodes occurred against the background of historic geopolitical and technological change that dramatically affected reporting from the field. Three distinct yet intersecting revolutions took root in the early 1980s as closed societies began to open up, as both the volume and velocity of information flows increased exponentially with the advent of the Internet, and as the distinction blurred between foreign and domestic threats in a borderless world and in cyberspace.

The first revolution was geopolitical. It swept away the Soviet Union, propelled the rise of China and forced both intelligence analysts and diplomats to confront a new, diffuse global threat environment in which non-state actors—including terrorists, WMD proliferators and cybercriminals—operated against U.S. interests across national borders, including our own.

The second revolution involves technology—primarily information technology, but also the rapidly advancing biological sciences, nanotechnology, material sciences, neuroscience and robotics. We have moved in one generation from an environment of information scarcity to information glut, and into a world where the United States no longer dominates technology R&D and is subject, more than ever, to technological surprise. In the late 1970s, it took at least a week for me to receive newspapers from Latin America and the Caribbean. Today, Washington analysts receive newspapers and media reports often before the people in the country of interest.

Governments have less and less capacity to control information flows, including social media. In recent years, the Arab Spring in the Middle East and widespread protests in Brazil and Turkey are cases in point. Meanwhile, international organized crime groups, terrorists, narcotraffickers and proliferators are taking advantage of such technology, bypassing governments or seeking to undermine them to protect their illegal activities.

The third revolution relates to homeland security, which may not seem appropriate for the diplomat’s agenda but is. Multiple federal agencies, state and local governments, and “first responders” have a legitimate need for information about threats that originate abroad, including human trafficking, refugee flows, migration patterns and infectious diseases. Looking ahead, diplomatic reporting will be expected to advance our understanding of a growing number of such complex issues in an increasingly interconnected world.

Responding to Change

From 1998 to 2001, as the first assistant director of central intelligence for analysis and production, I chaired the National Intelligence Production Board.

The NIPB, a working group spanning 11 agencies, including the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, worked to bring analytic production into the 21st century. This meant responding to both the post–Cold War geopolitical transformation and IT-driven technology revolution that were producing such churn in our workplace.

In 2000, the group produced The Strategic Investment Plan for Intelligence Community Analysis (ADCI/AP 2000-01), which recommended intelligence agencies invest in recruitment and training, interagency collaboration, use of external expertise and aggressive exploitation of open-source information. These resources will help counter “a dispersed, complex and ‘asymmetric’ threat assessment in which information technology makes everything move faster.”

INR, then headed by Tom Fingar, was ably represented on the NIPB panel by Chris Kojm, the future chair of the National Intelligence Council. INR has always been one of the smallest organizations in the intelligence community, but it punches well above its weight. It makes up for small numbers in its impressive analytic expertise and in its intimate connection to State’s indispensable diplomatic reporting.

In fact, bountiful Web access to open-source information has the potential to make good diplomatic reporting even better.

Yet I saw diplomatic reporting as undervalued within the State Department—and even more so on the Hill. State lacked strong legislative advocates, even at a time of growing global threats to national security. The failure to adequately fund the department was a blow to all the agencies that relied on diplomatic reporting, including mine.

Critics have asserted that while U.S. diplomatic reporting has a rich and noble tradition in our country, it has suffered from the advent of the Internet and easy access to valuable open-source information. Policymakers, the argument went, could now mine the Web for the country-specific information they needed and make direct contact with official counterparts and other valuable foreign sources—all in real time. Embassy political and economic officers, who generally rejected this line, could now be directed to reduce their substantive reporting activities and take on more of the embassy’s operational duties such as managing congressional delegations.

This critique, which exaggerated both the vulnerability of diplomatic reporting and the potential of the Internet, had surface appeal for a time. Experienced FSOs and government analysts in Washington were quick to recognize, however, that while the Internet would narrow the diplomat’s reporting domain, it could not compete with the Foreign Service’s ability to provide policy-relevant insight and invaluable context with regard to local people, events and trends. In fact, bountiful online access to open-source information has the potential to make good diplomatic reporting even better.

Technology Needs Brainpower

We cannot minimize the challenges ahead. U.S. diplomats must deal with a world in which everything moves faster, including advances in technology. The State Department will need to invest more in technology to preserve the global edge for diplomacy. IT-driven globalization has already fostered the unprecedented development of interconnected, global networks that move political, cultural, economic, financial, military and environmental information around a shrinking world with unprecedented speed and efficiency. This historic phenomenon of our age will not go away.

My core message, however, is that, while technology enhances brainpower, it is no substitute for it. Today a new, tech-savvy generation of Foreign Service officers is entirely comfortable with analytic tools and software applications like time series, clustering, link analysis and visualization. These young diplomats use social media as easily as they brush their teeth. But in the end, it is their talent and passion for crisp, incisive reporting that sustains the State Department’s gold standard for reporting from the field. Technology enables as never before, but cognitive power still makes the critical difference.

The advance of technology will only accelerate in the decades ahead. But it can never match the seasoned diplomat’s powers of observation and artful precision in assessing complex issues, local developments and trends.

During a government career spanning a quarter-century, John C. Gannon served as the Central Intelligence Agency’s director of European analysis, deputy director for intelligence and assistant director for analysis and production. He also chaired the National Intelligence Council, worked in the White House transitional planning office for the Department of Homeland Security and was the staff director of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. He is now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and the executive director of the congressionally directed FBI 9/11 Review Commission.