Behind the Scenes: Blackberries and Wireless Networks in Baghdad

Posted by Sean McCormack
August 22, 2008
Telecommunications Tower in Western Baghdad

About the Auhor: Sean McCormack serves as the Department Spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.

I don’t want to talk about the state of the strategic framework agreement with Iraq or the status of forces agreement. I’ve heard enough about both today, and we’ll hear much more about them and what they mean for the U.S., Iraq, and our relationship in the days, weeks and months ahead. Instead, I want to talk about Blackberries and a wireless network in Baghdad.

For as long as I have been going to Iraq, a bit more than three years now, Blackberries have not worked in Baghdad. Those of you with these electronic tethers know this state cuts both ways, but for us it cut mostly against being able to efficiently do our jobs in limited stays on the ground. I had just grown accustomed to taking the Blackberry from my belt, stuffing it securely in my bag in time for landing at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), and staying up a few extra hours after leaving Iraq to deal with all the e-mails I had missed while in Iraq. I was about to do the same thing today, when one of my traveling companions let it be known that her Blackberry was working. (I don’t know if she was tipped or had merely forgotten to turn it off before we reached “combat airspace” around Baghdad -- only to make a discovery almost as important to the business traveler as the invention of frequent flyer miles). Much to my delight, I learned that my AT&T powered device also was able to send and receive data. “What happened,” I asked myself as the task of debarking, putting on body armor, and boarding a Blackhawk helicopter was intruded on by contemplating the ramifications of this new state of being.

After getting to the first meeting site at Prime Minister Maliki’s residence, I asked one of the embassy personnel with us what had happened. They said that IRAQNA (Orascom Telecom Iraq Corporation) had happened and that they now had the pleasure of having to answer yet another question from Washington at 2:30 AM in Baghdad just because their Blackberries worked at home. (My first thought was to mention that answering e-mails at obscene hours will only beget more such e-mails but quickly decided my colleague could either figure that out for himself or continue to live a sleepless existence). Baghdad Blackberries had worked for about two months. In celebration and cost savings, our embassy was getting rid of the ubiquitous cell phones with a U.S. area code that served as the only means of mobile communication for civilians. The second surprise awaiting me in Baghdad was a wireless network at the Prime Minister’s office building, which I used to send a blog post to my colleagues in Washington. The journalists traveling with us shared in the good fortune, using the network to file their initial stories from Baghdad without traveling either to our embassy or to a press filing center.

Neither of these small changes will change much in Iraq nor change many opinions for that matter. But for some reason, they struck me as worth sharing. Perhaps it was because the road in Iraq has been such a costly and difficult one, and maybe because progress on big issues has come only recently. However, both of these minor technological advances reinforced the perception formed during the past few trips there that Iraq is moving forward in large and small ways -- though there is a long way to go.



United States
August 25, 2008

Nicholas in U.S.A. writes:

Thank you for a most interesting and thought-provoking post. I'd be interested to know whether you think that a markedly better quality of telecommunications in Iraq might contribute positively to its democratization and stability.

District Of Columbia, USA
August 27, 2008

Dan in Washington, DC writes:

Mr. McCormack -- thank you for your insightful, provocative post about how several wireless technologies recently became available for the first time in Iraq. I wholeheartedly agree that this is indeed important progress in Iraq, as the free flow of information facilitates the advance of freedom.

While what follows are my personal views, I work for the Department of State in the Information Resource Management Bureau's (IRM) Office of eDiplomacy (see ).

For the last few years IRM has been working to significantly expand mobile and wireless computing capabilities for our State Department diplomats working on the front lines of U.S. diplomacy. Indeed, one of the major goals of the Department's knowledge management and information technology programs is to strengthen State's leadership of U.S. foreign policy formulation/ implementation by putting State's knowledge resources at the disposal of American diplomatic personnel whenever and wherever they may be. And, we have achieved significant progress towards this goal. For example, as part of our efforts to provide American diplomats with "anywhere, anytime" access to information, State has provided over ten-thousand Department employees with the mobile technology they need to communicate and obtain needed information while away from their embassy or office desks.

It is encouraging to hear that American envoys like Mr. McCormack are putting such mobile devices to such good use in support U.S. diplomatic initiatives. These mobile computing tools are potentially very important devices for managing crisis situations, as well as for moving forward to successfully address what are our some of nation's most critical diplomatic opportunities and challenges.

Furthermore, if there was a failure to deploy and fully employ these mobile tools, it could potentially result in U.S. diplomats being less equipped to effectively promote peace and further freedom around the world. More specifically in this regard, a failure to reengineer the nature of diplomatic work in consideration of new information technologies and geo-political developments can mean missed opportunities and potentially contribute to tragic result. One dramatic example -- in his 1999 best-selling book, The First World War, British historian John Keegan observes:

"If the potentiality of modern communications failed those dedicated to waging war, how much more did it fail those professionally dedicated to preserving the peace. The tragedy of the diplomatic crisis that preceded the outbreak of the fighting in August 1914, which was to swell into the four-year tragedy of the Great War, is that events successively and progressively overwhelmed the capacity of statesmen and diplomats to control them. Honorable and able men though they were, the servants of the chancelleries and foreign officers of the great powers in the July crisis were bound to the wheel of the written note, the encipherment routine, the telegram schedule. The potentialities of the telephone, which might have cut across the barriers to communication, seem to have eluded their imaginative powers. The potentialities of the radio, available but unused, evaded them altogether. In the event, the states of Europe preceded, as if a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilization."

Thus, it is heartening to know that American diplomats like Mr. McCormack are indeed taking full advantage of information age technology to advance global freedom, prosperity and peace.

Mr. McCormack -- thanks again for sharing this interesting update on expanded mobile computing capabilities and related improvements in Iraq. And, thank you for dedicated service to the United States and to American diplomacy.

A. C.
Michigan, USA
August 27, 2008

Scott in Michigan writes:


It's great that there are wifi hotspots up in Iraq, of course, but DoS, DHS, and DoD personnel should review the best practice and expected degree of information assurance (IA) responsibilities for your particular gig. Blackberries and other handset radio/electronic organizers that use bluetooth, wifi linking, and a number of other protocols are insecure, period.

The example that springs to mind is that of the CIA station chief whose "work" computers hard drive was kept (for some reason) as a disk image on his "home" computer. The drive of his "home" computer was submitted as evidence to an Italian Court for ... less than regular operations. It cannot be stated TOO seriously, if one is a U.S. government employee and has security clearance or access to sensitive material, inappropriate handling of that data can lead to a real nightmare for your security detail and the IT dorks that work for your CIO.

Please, if you do not HAVE to use a portable device while abroad in a high risk security or intelligence area, don't. It's very easy to configure a backup device with ones world-wide numbers and contacts as well as sim sticks that ONLY have work data that one can "afford to lose".

Sorry to be a buzz-kill, but you'll all thank me next year when there's a crack down on sloppy data handling vis a vis these various devices.

District Of Columbia, USA
August 27, 2008

Scott in Washington, DC writes:

Correction: IRAQNA did not bring BlackBerry technology to Iraq. Zain in Iraq (formerly MTC Atheer) brought BlackBerry service to Iraq in March of this year. IRAQNA no longer exists in Iraq. Zain acquired IRAQNA last year and has since taken on the very difficult work of merging the two companies under the banner of Zain.

Zain is not only the largest company in Iraq, but also the largest private sector employer, employing roughly 5000 people directly and 50,000 indirectly.

Now that is a success story to take note of.

District Of Columbia, USA
August 28, 2008

Louita in Washington, DC writes:

State Department employees with electronic communications and information management tools in hand -- literally, in hand -- retain a time margin which could be a strategic advantage. Those without the tools of the 21st century have to drill for data randomly in the dark -- a little like the obscure -- and vaguely sinister -- black of this website.


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