Colin Powell Is Done Talking About Hillary Clinton’s Emails, So Let’s Take A Trip Down @StateDept Tech Lane

Posted: 1:27 am ET
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After making waves for saying “Her people have been trying to pin it on me,” former Secretary of State Colin Powell is done talking about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails and is not commenting anymore on it.

For those too young to remember this  — there was a time, not too long ago when the State Department communicated via teletype machines (with paper tape), similar to the one below.   You draft your cables on a Wang computer, give it to the local secretary to convert the document, and then she (almost always a she) runs it through the teletype machine for transmission to Main State and other diplomatic posts overseas.  If I remember right,  State had some creative IT folks who hooked up a DOS computer to the teletype machine so conversion was possible.  You still had to print it out and it still took a lot of trees.

Image via Open Tech School


When Colin Powell came to the State Department in 2001, the State Department was still using the Wang machine similar to the one below. They were either stand alone machines or were connected via a local area network and hooked up to a gigantic magnetic disc.  If post was lucky, it got one computer also hook up for email. Otherwise, you have a Selectric typewriter and a weekly diplomatic pouch.

Via Pinterest

Here is retired FSO Pater Van Buren with a look at technology at State during the Powell era.

When the rest of the world was working on PCs and using then-modern software in their offices, State clung to an old, clunky mainframe system made by the now-defunct company WANG. WANG’s version of a word processor was only a basic text editor with no font or formatting tools. Spell check was an option many locations did not have installed. IBM had bid on a contract to move State to PCs in 1990, but was rejected in favor of a renewal of the WANG mainframes.
Until Powell demanded the change, internet at State was limited to stand-alone, dial up access that had to be procured locally. Offices had, if they were lucky, one stand alone PC off in the corner connected to a noisy modem. If you wanted to use it, you needed in most cases to stand in line and wait your turn.
The way I see it, there’s about a 99.9 percent probability that he discussed his signature accomplishment at State with her, and cited his own limited, almost experimental, use of an AOL email account, as an example of how to break down the technical, security, bureaucratic, and cultural barriers that still plague the State Department today.

Read in full below:





4 responses

  1. Wang in 2001?? Not so!! State was well into building its Local Area Network system using Microsoft NT4.0 with its “A Logical Modernization Approach” (ALMA).. By 2001 when Powell came on board almost every post world-wide already had their NT4.0 Unclassified systems using Exchange e-mail installed.. What Powell brought into play was his push for Internet Access through State’s Opennet Unclassified System. It was called “OpenNet Plus” and took a couple of years to implement world-wide since each post had to go through a certification process. As for USIA, yes it has its own system and integration into OpenNet meant State adopted a modified version of USIA LotusNotes messaging system on the classified side as “CableXpress” which lasted over 10-11 years until State’s SMART system was fully implemented.

  2. Diplopundit and Peter are way too young to remember the State tech path. I used to send Airgrams, which shows how old I am.

    Diplopundit pictured a Telex machine, which is indeed vaguely similar to the teletype machines State used back in the day of carbon paper and typewriters. Here are better pics of something similar to the crypto machines used by “the communicators” who “poked” all the telegrams.

    Please give Wang some credit. When State bought “word processing” machines in 1981-5, the World Wide Web hadn’t been invented yet. There was no conceivable reason for giving anyone access to what was then “the internet”.

    As a word processing machine, Wang was “state of the art”, a phrase that does not mean the same thing as the phrase “leading edge”. Wang was also the only vendor of word processors that could even dream of servicing a customer who would use the machines in over 100 different counties.

    Peter is correct that Wangs could not display on the screen characters that were bold, italic, etc. Most printers then used couldn’t PRINT bold or italic, so there wasn’t much point. In 1985 the first Apple LaserWriter printers led the way into WYSIWYG word processing, supported by the new Pagemaker and PostScript software.

    State was inadvertently wise to be slow to move word processing from Wangs to PCs.. Early PCs were slow, hard-to-use, and, thanks to rapid progress (286, 386, 486), obsolete almost as soon as they were unboxed. More of a challenge, as early-adopters will remember, was that the average person found operating a PC to be beyond their abilities. Training the Foreign Service to use Wangs was a challenge; training them to use PCs (and complicated software) effectively was never possible.

    • Thanks for contributing to the tech memory lane, Doug. I admit I’m forever 35 but was never quite as old as the Airgrams. Appreciate your thoughts and the links to the teletype machines, many thanks!

  3. Van Buren’s account of Powell’s role in dragging State out of the stone (or at least WANG) age is intersting, but it omits the ways in which integration with USIA sped things along. By 1999, the U.S. Information Agency had rolled out desktop Internet access wordwide. It also relied on communications software that, while it seems almost comically dated now (it was based on Lotus Notes), was miles ahead of State. Posts mostly won the battle to keep desktop Internet access during the time it took State to catch up, but it was a wrench to lose the capabilities of the old system when the State e-mail was imposed.