On November 23, 1866 on a cold, damp day in Washington D.C., United States Secretary of State William H. Seward directed his clerk, John Haswell, to send a 780-word enciphered telegram to his forty-nine year old Special Envoy to France, William Bigelow, in Paris, via the new trans-Atlantic cable. Bigelow was in the middle of negotiating France’s military withdrawal from Mexico and the Rio Grande, attempting to resolve an international crisis that had simmered on the periphery of the recently concluded American Civil War. The secret cable took more than twenty-four hours to be delivered and was sent using the colonial Monroe cipher that Bigelow believed had been compromised. Seward, however, knowing little about encryption, rejected Bigelow’s assertion and insisted that the Monroe cipher was impenetrable. Shortly after the cable was sent, it was leaked to the press, which would have easily enabled the French to break the code if European governments had not done so already, and many, like Bigelow, believed that they had. Using the cipher was also one of the lengthiest ways to send an encrypted message at a time when telegraphic communications charged for each character. When encrypted, Seward’s original 780-word message to Paris doubled in size and ultimately cost the U.S. Government $24,996, or three times Seward’s entire nineteenth century salary.
The episode resulted in 1) the telegraph company suing the United States government because Seward refused to pay the hefty bill, 2) Secretary Seward providing testimony before an angry and confused Congress; 3) numerous scathing newspaper articles criticizing the Secretary and the United States government, and 4) a newly developed State Department encryption code, dispatched across the globe that unfortunately caused chaos amongst the diplomatic corps, rather than improved information security.
When the Snowden revelations hit newspaper headlines on June 5, 2013, I was working at a big data analytics technology company in Silicon Valley. Prior to that I worked directly for a former Secretary of State, a former Secretary of Defense, and a former National Security Advisor, concurrently conducting research on cybersecurity, democracy and international institutions at Stanford University. Within twenty-four hours of the initial reports on U.S. government surveillance it was clear that some lawmakers had voted to approve legislation on matters of which they knew little, and that the consequences of those approvals had hollowed out a chasm of distrust between Washington policymakers, technology companies, and consumers. In many ways, the ensuing chaos and anxiety regarding technology, information security, and encryption in 2013 was not dissimilar to the public turmoil that erupted in early 1867, both due in part to deficiencies of technical expertise and limited resources within the United States government.
In the years since I witnessed the troubling impact of that lack of expertise within the legislative branch, I have continued to work on cybersecurity, technology, and geopolitical issues. Unfortunately, however, there continues to be a knowledge gap--within government and society-- that presents significant information and national security challenges to the country. The Congressional Innovation Fellowship is a unique opportunity to better understand the intricacies of our legislative process, minimize the gap of understanding, and contribute to improving our information and national security from within the legislative branch. For me, the Fellowship provides both a chance to participate in an essential democratic institution at a time when institutions are threatened by information insecurity, and to fulfill the spirit of President Roosevelt’s admonishment to “never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.”