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World Wide Wangs—When the State Department Met the Internet

One of the monumental technological advancements of the past century was the creation of the Internet. Commonly referred to as “the Third Industrial Revolution,” the advent of digital technology has changed life – both personal and professional – as we know it. Today the World Wide Web has made everything from shopping for groceries to communicating internationally as simple as a point and click.

The Internet has revolutionized communication for anyone with access to a computer and a phone line. Governments, civilians, businesses and even crime networks regularly employ the Internet, with far-reaching implications for global security. With so many ways to see, hear and stream news and up-to-the-minute information, diplomacy has been forced to make adjustments.

In his June 2006 interview with Charles Stewart Kennedy, Harold W. Geisel emphasized that the State Department was initially reluctant to switch over to digital communications. Yet U.S. diplomats soon used Internet access to help improve quality of life in the developing world, as Geoffrey Chapman explained in his interview with Kennedy in March 2005. Looking at the darker side of the digital revolution, Lawrence Cohen noted the consequences of Internet scams as they unfolded in Nigeria, in his 2007 interview with Kennedy.

To read more about life in the Foreign Service, international crime or Africa, please follow the links.

“I remember a telegram from the Executive Secretary of the Department to all posts warning us not to accept any instructions that were given by fax”

Harold W. Geisel, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Information Management, 1995-96

They hired me (to be the DAS for Information Management) because I was a good manager, not because I knew much about information technology. And I think I was very good as far as managing people and resources. I was not good and made some terrible mistakes with respect to information technology; although they didn’t hurt the Department they could have hurt the Department and we were only lucky that they didn’t. (Geisel is seen at left.)

I also give myself credit for being one of the merry band of people that used to go out to ambassadors and tell them what they didn’t want to hear about the Internet, that we were getting better information from the Internet than we were from their political sections. I didn’t say it quite that baldly but I came close…

[This was in 1995, 1996 when the Internet was] just beginning to catch on, that’s right. It was still pretty slow, there was no Internet Explorer, we used, what was it we used? Mosaic…. A, We were computer illiterate and B, our equipment was awful. Remember the Wangs?… which were the wonder of the age when we put them in in the early ‘80s and we were ahead of all the government agencies…

But you know it was an interesting time because I can remember in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s when I was in Bonn and just then it had finally come that e-mail was more important than telegrams. Remember? Telegrams today are nothing, they’re just confirmations, telegrams are of very little import because everything is done by e-mail, both classified and unclassified.

I remember our unclassified system went down and in Bonn in those days we had a regional communications office with all the technicians. I talked to them and said “where’s the problem?” They said, well, the problem was a server, which was located in Antwerp.

Now, why did we have a server in Antwerp that was controlling Europe? Well it was simple. Because way back when in 1975, when no one was using e-mail, the European logistical support office was set up in Antwerp and they didn’t want to use telegrams, they and the transportation people in Washington. So that was the first e-mail, and there was a line, a dedicated line between Antwerp and the Department and they were our hub, if you can imagine that.

Well, the server had gone down and he told me, the head of the regional office of communications, that they had a technician going up to do some work in the comm[unications] center setting up something for our mission to the Common Market in Brussels and, when he got done with that in a few days, they’d be able to work on the email server.

And I said what do you mean? You don’t understand what’s important. Nobody has their damn e-mail in Western Europe. But you know, it hadn’t occurred to him.

But yes, times were changing and boy were they changing fast…

Wonders of the communications age tend not to last very long. I remember a telegram from the Executive Secretary of the Department to all posts warning us not to accept any instructions that were given by fax, that instructions should only come via official telegram, and it was to all ambassadors.

Well, do you think it was even two years before S/S (Secretariat) wasn’t itself using faxes for just about everything? And they still have this fax thing that goes to the White House; I forgot what they call it.

You know, this happens fast, and the same thing with e-mail and the Internet. And I got the big picture right. Where I was very wrong is that I was sucked in by a three star General in the Pentagon to believing in what they called DMS, Defense Messaging System.

They still don’t have it. And thank God after I left, my successor, Joe Lake, said this is bunk. DOD had only spent its first billion; it hadn’t spent its second billion with this system that didn’t work.

And Joe Lake very correctly specified “off the shelf.”  And that’s what we have today.

“It may sound a little far-fetched to connect isolated African villages up to the Internet…”

Geoffery W. Chapman, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, 1998-2000

One the initiatives I was involved with was an effort to expand use of the Internet in the developing world. This was spearheaded largely by Ira Magaziner, who was the health guru at the beginning of the first Clinton term and then turned to Internet policy issues in the second term.

The Administration made a determined push to expand Internet use in the U.S., but allied with this was a campaign to promote its use in the poorer countries of the world essentially as a development tool.

The focus here was largely on Africa, but also to some extent Asia and Latin America, with projects to get people hooked up to the Internet, to make them Internet-literate, and to involve them in a rudimentary e-commerce as a way of pulling themselves out of poverty.

We were never able to secure any additional money for the program; it was a matter of pulling money out of existing pots and trying to direct it more at endeavors of this kind…

African governments and peoples were only too happy to receive assistance in building out their domestic telecommunications networks and to get exposure to the technological knowhow.

It may sound a little farfetched to connect isolated African villages up to the Internet, to make the villagers computer literate, and to introduce them to the wonders of e-commerce; but this did work, at least on a small scale.

There was certainly a lot of resentment in the developed world over U.S. control of the Internet – the feeling being that this should be subject to international control – but I did not have any sense that people in the developing world saw the Internet as a big American conspiracy out to run their lives for them…

I think we felt we were on the cutting edge, in terms of trying to expand Internet use globally and make it a tool for development. We were also peripherally involved in the effort to set up a new structure for managing the Internet, shifting this task from a wholly American company under license from the Department of Commerce to a new private international entity for which there was effectively no precedent.

The Europeans and others wanted some international governmental oversight of this new entity, but the Clinton administration pressed to have it completely in private hands.

There was a certain amount of opposition in U.S. business circles to handing over control of the Internet to an international entity on the grounds that we had built it and it was working fine as it was. But certainly people in the Clinton administration recognized that ultimately some form of internationalization was inevitable, and that both the U.S. Government and the U.S generally would have to cede unilateral policy control.

“Nigerians essentially invented Internet fraud.”

Lawrence Cohen, U.S. Embassy Lagos, Economic Counselor 2000-2002

Nigerians are extremely bright, outgoing, cultured and socially enjoyable. They can also be conniving, even Machiavellian. Some of the world’s premiere criminal gangs are Nigerian.

Nigerians essentially invented Internet fraud. In Nigeria it is called 4-1-9. This refers to the statute in the country’s legal code which relates to the crime of advanced fee fraud. That is what the Internet fraud is all about.

The typical solicitation reaches out to the unsuspecting target. It offers the possibility of fantastic riches, millions of dollars, in exchange for the assistance of the victim who hands over his bank account information….

When I began my job, sitting on my desk were cases from people who had been suckered by Internet or “advanced fee” fraud… Nigerian crime syndicates were talented perpetrators of this type of fraud….

Most of the fraud occurred in the mid to late 1990s before people wised up to the various schemes. Some correspondence went through the mail. In fact, so much went through the mail that the criminal gangs made counterfeit Nigerian stamps to cut costs.

Then, the Internet became popular. Criminals went online. Targeted persons (pigeons?) who followed the instructions on a variety of get rich schemes handed over important personal financial information.

When I arrived in Lagos, folks who lost tens of thousands of dollars were seeking recourse. A few still refused to believe they had been suckered. It was a hopeless challenge. Still, some believed the embassy could assist. People actually thought that they could get their money back. They submitted documentation to us.

“I do not understand,” they might say. “I was told this was fool proof!”

Yeah, fool proof for the criminal. A stranger offers you 30 percent of $30 million for assistance in getting money out of Nigeria. What fool would hand over bank account information to such an individual?

Fortunately for me, by this time most 4-1-9 cases were being forwarded to our Legal Attaché, the resident FBI agent, or our Secret Service agent. Both Secret Service and FBI had active offices in Lagos.