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22nd July 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:00 am

Wonk’d: The ALDAC “Controversy”


Time to introduce another periodic feature here at Undip:  Wonk’d, an attempt to explain some of the more arcane inner workings of our government’s foreign policy infrastructure.  Think of it as a complement to our Diplospeak Translator:  whereas the DT converts convoluted diplomatic language into plain English, Wonk’d demystifies the arcane rules, procedures, and traditions that often govern the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.

Let’s start with what are known as ALDACs.  The word “ALDAC” is an acronym for “All Diplomatic and Consular Posts.”  They are cables sent by the Department of State to every U.S. Government outpost around the world.  (By the way, “cable” is a euphemism these days.  Everything is sent electronically via an encrypted, tightly controlled channel used exclusively for that purpose.  Think of it as a special type of email.)

Yesterday, The Washington Times reported that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had sent an ALDAC instructing  missions to provide only minimal support to Presidential candidates traveling overseas.  This set off a firestorm of speculation as to why this was done immediately before Barack Obama’s trip to Europe and the Middle East and not before John McCain’s trip last month to Colombia and Mexico.  The suggestion was that the Bush Administration was using a double standard.

The reality is a lot simpler, having more to do with the way State works (and “thinks”) than it does politics.  But before we go there, let me note that this cable was not literally sent out by The Condi.  In fairness to her, the Secretary’s name appears at the bottom of all ALDACs, not to mention quite a few other Departmental missives.  It’s a way of conveying to the recipients that this is official policy, nothing more.  Her role was probably little more than putting her initials on the final “decision memorandum” recommending that she sign the cable.

Now, let’s move on to the issue of the timing of this particular ALDAC.  Here’s what Acting Spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos had to say about the issue during yesterday’s State Department Press Briefing:

QUESTION: Can you be any more precise about the reasons for the – sending this cable about what employee — embassy employees can and can’t do for visiting delegations, visiting candidates now, as opposed to four months ago?

GALLEGOS: Yeah. As you saw, one of the newspapers here in town reported the fact that there was a cable that had been sent to our post overseas that discussed basically some of the dos and don’ts, what they can and shouldn’t do for both CODELS, which is congressional travel that’s federally funded, and NODELS, which is travel that is not funded with federal funds. And basically, the idea here is to, first of all, let the person know and understand what they can and can’t do and to assure all that each candidate would be – each individual participating in this NODEL travel would be dealt with in the same way.

What had happened was that — you know, we communicate pretty regularly to our posts. This is a big bureaucracy and we communicate with our posts to advise them of legal requirements and to ensure that they understand their responsibilities. In the past, we’ve done that via cable and through e-mails. What we’ve done – and obviously, I spoke earlier today about some differences between now and four years ago.

One of those differences is the fact that we have two sitting senators who are running for election. And what had happened was earlier this year, Senator McCain had done a couple of trips to overseas, and we had communicated to his campaign and we had communicated to the post – actually, excuse me – we had communicated to the post where he visited pretty much the same information that was provided in this cable that went out. Subsequent to that, we find out that Senator Obama had intended to travel and therefore we decided to send that same general information that we’d sent out to the post about Senator McCain to all of the posts around the world.

Our posts are concerned that they do things right. They are concerned that they are perceived as fair and equitable in their treatment of all of the travelers.  And there were questions coming in about what they can and can’t do, what they should or shouldn’t do. And our ethics lawyers, working with our legislative folks, decided that the time had come to send out this cable to all posts.

This is actually a pretty accurate description of how the Department’s labyrinthine bureaucracy works:  first it responds to the immediate issue — in this case, McCain’s trip to Latin America — and sends a cable to the relevant posts.  Then somebody, probably in the Office of the Legal Advisor, notices and suggests that they do an ALDAC covering the same points covered in the original cable, thereby standardizing policy and forestalling the need to send a similar missive every single time a Presidential candidate goes overseas.

So then somebody prepares a draft version of the ALDAC.  Then it gets sent out to a bunch of other people in the State Department and probably one or two over at the National Security Council.  This is known as the clearance process:  no document in the State Department can be released unless it is cleared by the appropriate people.  And any one of the five (or fifteen or thirty) people who have to clear it can propose changes, which then must be run by all the people who already have signed off on the first draft.  And any one of those five (or fifteen or thirty) also can clear the document conditionally — “I’ll clear it if you get Joe in Legislative Affairs to clear it.”  This is also known colloquially as a CYA clearance.

Once everybody is finally agrees on a text, it then has to be sent to the Office of the Secretary, attached to a decision memo (which basically recommends that the Secretary sign off on the proposed text).  The decision memo must follow strict formatting guidelines– including such issues as font and font size — issued by  Secretary’s Office.  These rules are treated as holy writ — I once had a memo sent back to me because one bullet point was in 11 point rather than 12 point type.  Once the Secretariat signs off on format, it then goes to the Secretary for her signature.  Then and only then can the ALDAC be issued.

Think about those last two paragraphs for a minute.  If it took me this long to explain the process, imagine how long it takes to execute it.  Frankly, it’s a wonder that they managed to get this thing out before Obama headed to Afghanistan.

The bottom line?  The Department wanted to establish a single standard on how to treat Presidential candidates.  And since it was important to get the word out, they sent it to everybody.  That meant an ALDAC.  No double standard.  No chicanery.  Just good old fashioned government red tape.

So all in all, this is a tempest in a teapot.  The Condi did nothing wrong.  In any case, she was too busy playing golf this weekend to have hatched such a far-fetched conspiracy.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008 at 10:00 am and is filed under foreign policy, politics. It is tagged under , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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