What the Heck Is a 'Cable' Anyway?

No, the State Department isn't sending telegraphs
By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 30, 2010 2:30 PM CST
What the Heck Is a 'Cable' Anyway?
September 1932: A worker at the telegraph office receiving a telegram over the phone and transcribing it directly by means of a typewriter.   (Getty Images)

When WikiLeaks released 250,000 classified State Department cables, it raised an inevitable question: The State Department still sends cables? Fear not; our diplomats aren’t actually communicating in Morse code, Slate’s Explainer column assures us. Though “cables” used to refer to telegraphs, these days they’re basically group emails; the State Department even handles them with Microsoft Outlook.

The distinction is a little blurry, but emails are private communications between addressees, whereas cables are important messages accessible to many people with appropriate security clearance. They also get saved onto a database, with varying degrees of secrecy. "If you want to send a personal note to Hillary Clinton about the agenda for next week's meeting, you'd use an e-mail," writes Brian Palmer. "If you're transmitting an assessment of the Afghan elections, you'd send a cable." Some have lobbied to eliminate the classification entirely, but Foggy Bottom’s old guard insisted on keeping the tradition alive, at least in name. (More Wikileaks diplomatic cables stories.)

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