In the previous chapter, we looked at the State Department’s problems in integrating advanced electronic technologies in its operations. Here we will examine the difficulties it has encountered in reshaping its policy structure to deal with the digital realities that are driving so much of American foreign policy these days.
Communications issues were an occasional foreign policy concern for most of the 150 years after the invention of the Morse telegraph. They were dealt with in episodic fashion, usually involving the need to react to technological developments in the field. A prime example, as we have seen, was the policy challenge presented by communications satellite technology in the early 1960s.
Bureaucratic foot-dragging was only part of the State Department’s reluctance to becoming involved in communications issues. It also reflected deep-seated ambiguities about government’s role in this area. Unlike other countries, the American communications and information sectors have historically been controlled by private firms, not by public agencies. U.S. companies routinely invoke First Amendment principles in resisting government controls over their activities. It took almost a century after Samuel Morse’s invention to pass a national law, the Communications Act of 1934, which mandated mild regulatory restraints on the telecommunications industry.
This arms-length relationship between government and industry carried over into the global activities of U.S. communications firms. For many decades, AT&T operated what was, for all intents and purposes, its own foreign office, which negotiated agreements on telephone links directly with government agencies abroad. AT&T and other companies