The transmission of information and analysis is crucial to the job of the State Department, and it is changing rapidly, according to Robert E. Lamb, assistant secretary for administration.
"We're on the verge of seeing a revolution in the way the Foreign Service does business, a revolution driven by technology," he said.
After a study by an outside contractor last year, $5 million is being requested in next year's budget for pilot programs to pave the way for large-scale operations in a new phase of the Foreign Affairs Information System.
Eventually, according to Lamb, there should be a computer terminal at the desk of nearly every officer here and abroad. Through those terminals, substantive messages will flow freely and easily via satellite to and from Washington, and "electronic mail" will be transmitted between State Department offices or between those in U.S. missions abroad.
Off the drawing board and well under way is a new Electronic File Management System designed to minimize the security risks to State Department reporting, Lamb said.
At 15 locations in "highly threatened areas" overseas, the embassy communications center keeps nearly all the files in a central computer, with the Foreign Service officer maintaining only minimal working files at his desk. Five of these locations are equipped with terminals on officers' desks for easy access. The spur to this system was the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by a mob in November 1979. Hundreds of documents were seized and many have been subsequently published in Tehran, in some cases after having been laboriously put together in jigsaw puzzle fashion from shredded papers.
None of the captured documents were from the embassy communication center, where the files were all pulverized into dust as the embassy was attacked, according to Robert Ribera, deputy assistant secretary for communications. The lesson, he said, is to centralize classified materials rather than permitting them to be widely scattered through a threatened embassy.
Another communications project under way, with the acronym TERP, is the Terminal Equipment Replacement Program. The result can be seen in the fifth-floor Communications Center at State, where big optical reader machines turn paper cables into electronic impulses to be sent overseas via banks of computers across the room.
Robert N. Liebau, acting chief of the center, said this is a far cry from the paper-bound process he found when he came to work at State in 1957. It would have to be different, with the vast growth in the message flow year after year.
In the past five years, Liebau said, overseas messages originating or terminating at State increased from 22,500 per week to about 32,000 per week. This staggering load of nearly 5,000 messages every day is soon to be presided over by Charles Chesteen, the new center chief, who is arriving from the Bonn embassy.
To help identify what is useful and needed from the rest of the towering and still-growing mass of information, State has signed a contract with Richard S. Marcus, principal research scientist of MIT's Laboratory for Information Decision Systems. He will be a consultant on the communications of the future, seeking to separate electronic wheat from electronic chaff as they enter and leave the diplomatic factory in Foggy Bottom.