When the U.S. foreign service needs to send secrets to another country, it relies on diplomatic couriers. Those men and women ferry our nation’s most precious secrets from the State Department's Foggy Bottom headquarters to U.S. embassies around the globe. In 1985, when I went through basic agent training with the department's Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), I was offered the option of serving as one of those couriers. The word around the academy was that the job came with lots of overtime and allowed the adventurous traveler to see the world on Uncle Sam’s dime.
Besides the travel opportunities, there were other perks to the job: Couriers travel first class and are the first to board when bearing a diplomatic pouch and the first to deplane upon arrival to keep an eye on any larger diplomatic pouches in the belly of an aircraft. They monitor when the hold is secured — and when it is reopened — to ensure thieves don't attempt to grab the sensitive material or spies don’t try to clandestinely examine the contents of the pouch in what's known as a "black bag" job. They also travel under black diplomatic passports, ensuring smooth and uninterrupted travel. But unlike Hollywood’s depiction of diplomatic couriers — with black briefcases handcuffed to wrists — the average air traveler would never be able to spot a courier in transit. In many cases, they keep their bright orange diplomatic pouch inside a normal carry-on bag, stuffed under the seat.
The sacrosanct nature of diplomatic pouches has made them a perfect means for slipping illicit materials past normal border checks.
Nefarious schemes aside, the U.S. diplomatic courier service has a long and storied history that traces its origin to 1918, when the U.S. Army established the “Silver Greyhounds” courier team to carry correspondence during World War I. The wartime service was later harnessed for civilian diplomatic use and adopted the motto “None is swifter than these,” the same one used in antiquity by the Persian royal messenger service.
While I did not choose to follow in those footsteps when I became a DSS agent, I often carried a "dip pouch" from Washington, D.C., when conducting counterterrorism investigations abroad in order to move reports and evidence in and out of countries without undue scrutiny. Carrying a pouch, however, is not convenient. There are protocols to be followed: Once in a country, usually with the assistance of an embassy expeditor, you must bring the pouch directly to the embassy for opening and safe storage.
Although it’s nice to think that “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail,” in hunts for moles and other spies, the diplomatic pouch is a favorite means to securely transmit reports in closely guarded espionage cases. After the infamous KGB bugging of the newly built U.S. Embassy in Moscow, convoys of couriers were used to truck in office furniture to ensure the KGB couldn’t place listening devices into desks and chairs. Despite the official hands-off approach taken to them, diplomatic couriers working for rogue nations like North Korea are routinely closely surveilled. In my role as a DSS agent investigating terrorist attacks that may have been perpetrated by one of those countries, the question whether a diplomatic pouch was used to facilitate its commission would inevitably come to mind. But without a defector with a pouch, it is hard to know.
It would make sense to think that in these days of increasing electronic communication, the diplomatic pouch is an outdated method of communication. But it may be the only way to guarantee that closely guarded secrets stay secure, considering the enduring threat of hacking and data theft.