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Gabriel Cortez, 2020-21 Brumley Fellow

Jun 1, 2021 |

In our continuing series of Brumley Spotlights, we now explore another Brumley Fellow’s year-long research project. Gabriel Cortez served as a 2020-21 Brumley Next Generation Graduate Fellow at the Strauss Center and a 2019 Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellow with the U.S. State Department. Gabriel will be joining the Foreign Service this summer 2021 as a Political Foreign Service Officer. Gabriel shared some of his reflections on the Brumley research process.

Tell us about the “journey” that your project went through. Did you change the focus, topic, or deliverable as you went through your research? How did your project develop?

The final project differed from the vision I had originally imagined but in a positive way. Originally, my project was much narrower, looking at occurrences of intelligence sharing failures. As soon as I started the research, I knew I wanted to expand the scope of the project. I wanted to explore how diplomacy can impact the work of the intelligence community through reporting cables. The final project takes a general look at both topics and their implications for U.S. national security. 

What was the most eye-opening thing you learned through this process?

Going into the project, I had assumed that the State Department’s Intelligence and Research Bureau (INR) was responsible for controlling and disseminating the diplomatic cables they received from U.S. missions across the globe. My research on diplomatic cables quickly showed that INR plays an extremely limited (but important) role in the cable dissemination process. INR plays no role in disseminating these cables except for specific circumstances where extremely sensitive information is involved. Digging deep into this topic was incredibly informative.

Any certain discoveries in your beginning research that led you to change your scope? Perhaps you saw some successes, or was there a certain instance of diplomatic ties helping a situation?

During my classes at UT and The LBJ School, I read about instances where high-ranking officials at the State Department would specifically withhold information from other national security officials. They did this for several reasons: to gain clout with their superiors, keep intelligence within the Department, and because of a sense of self-importance. This kind of information hoarding happens across the federal government, but I was really fascinated about the particular instances of it occurring at the State Department. As I began my research, however, I realized I would need a better understanding of how the State Department shared intelligence its Foreign Service Officers gathered. That led me to increase the scope of my project to understand the intelligence sharing process, the good, the bad, and everything in between.

For the layperson: what State Dept. entity has the larger role in disseminating the more numerous and less-sensitive diplomatic cables, rather than the INR? Do you think this separation (if there is one) works?

One of the biggest surprises in conducting this research project was the discovery that this dissemination process really does not exist at the State Department in a way I assumed it would be. Originally, I had assumed cables from abroad would get funneled through INR and then disseminated from there. It turns out that INR has little to no role in distributing cables to the intelligence community. Only the most sensitive cables are supposed to reach INR and are processed in a special way (although this system can be misused). Most cables with intelligence relevant to the intelligence community’s needs are accessible to intelligence analysts as soon as they are submitted by the drafting officer. My research at the unclassified level demonstrates that this process, even with the numerous challenges facing it, still works and in some ways has improved over the years with technological advances. 

What do you hope to do with your project or what you learned after the Brumley program?

Because I am joining the Foreign Service this summer, this project has helped me understand the critical role of diplomatic cables in the U.S. national security realm. As a future Political Foreign Service Officer, I will soon be responsible for writing cables just like those I researched for this project. Understanding how these cables are drafted and how they will impact the work of analysts in the intelligence community has been incredibly rewarding. 

What do you think will be most important to keep in mind as you write cables for your work (very excited for you, by the way)?

The biggest benefit this research has provided me is the perspective to understand how the future reporting cables I will draft will be used by the intelligence community. I think for some FSOs, especially at the junior level, there can be a sense that submitting a cable is similar to releasing a report into the void; maybe people will read it, maybe they will not. Understanding how these cables are disseminated throughout the U.S. federal government, who can access them, and how they are used is incredibly beneficial as I enter the Foreign Service. Learning about the cable drafting process was also helpful in preparing me for the expectations that are made of incoming Political officers. Researching the intelligence community and the CIA in particular for this report, in addition to several intelligence related courses I took at The LBJ School, provided invaluable insight into how intelligence impacts U.S. national security. Finally, I did so much research using the unclassified version of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual and Handbook that I am now experienced in what was initially an extremely overwhelming resource.  

What was the most important thing you learned doing this project?

I was impressed with the amount of respect and admiration intelligence analysts have for the work of Foreign Service Officers and vice versa. It was humbling to interview experts from the diplomatic and intelligence worlds and see the shared camaraderie. I came into this project expecting a more tense relationship between the two worlds. Instead, it was great to see a working relationship able to overcome tremendous challenges. 

Do you have any research/Brumley related advice for the new cohort of Fellows?

Do not be afraid to ask your mentor for advice. They are here to help you and want to see you succeed. Do not be afraid to expand or reduce the scope of your project. Your research may open new paths or areas of interest, embrace those. Winter break provides an excellent opportunity to do some deep-dive research, interview experts, and draft a working outline for your project.

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