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Twempest in a Frappuccino Pot?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, June 30 2010

The State Department's Jared Cohen, in a Center for American Progress photo.

The New York Times' Mark Landler reports that a pair of State Department staffers closely associated with "21st Century Statecraft" have gotten into a little hot water for the tweets they posted while leading an official technology delegation to Syria earlier this month:

The two staff members, Alec J. Ross and Jared Cohen, were rapped on the knuckles for generating what two State Department officials called “stray voltage.” Yet despite the youthful indiscretion, their broader goal of using technology to further diplomacy enjoys enthusiastic support from the highest levels of the department, notably Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Ross and Cohen are both active tweeters, and their postings mix the professional with the personal, if such a distinction can be made. Cohen and Ross's postings from Damascus seem to have gained attention inside State after the were highlighted by Josh Rogin on his Foreign Policy blog.

"I'm not kidding when I say I just had the greatest frappuccino ever at Kalamoun University north of Damascus," wrote Cohen while in-country. Another drink-related observation: "I keep having the bad luck of getting the carrot/orange juice instead of the mango juice." Ross's tweets from Syria included, "Annoyed by the Hezbollah propaganda in Damascus" and "Creative Diplomacy: @jaredcohen challenged Minister of Telecom to cake-eating contest."

The mission of the trip was, it seems, to introduce leaders from major American tech companies to the Syrian market, and the trip joins "tech dels," in State parlance, to Iraq, Mexico, and Russia. (I should mention, I went along State's trip to Mexico back in October.)

What, exactly, Ross and Cohen were, in Landler's diplomatic phrase, "rapped on the knuckles" for isn't all that clear. Are the two expected now to refrain from tweeting about lunch while traveling on State Department business? Should they switch over to "official" State Department accounts while on the job? The Ross and Cohen-led trip to Syria had already been the cause for some griping on Capitol Hill, suggested Politico's Laura Rozen recently. That Landler's story ran, with quotes from inside State, suggests that critiques of State's informal, somewhat-personality driven approach to tech around around the globe are getting an internal hearing.

Does the fate of the United States' global diplomacy hinge on a flippant frappacino tweet? One thing to keep in mind: the 28-year-old Cohen and 38-year-old Ross have amassed in the neighborhood of 300,000 followers on the Twitter accounts held under their own names -- which is, taken together, more than 25 times the number of Twitter followers that Hillary Clinton's State Department has.

(Thanks, Micah, for the headline. I think.)