At the ferryterminal in Rosso, Senegal, on the south side of the Senegal River, hundreds of people mill about. Men and women sell produce, bottles of water, sunglasses, and sandals as donkey carts, scooters, and small buses clatter by. Long, narrow motorboats whisk passengers back and forth while old ferries glide at a stately pace, their decks packed with cars, trucks, and dozens of passengers. One has a cow on the front ramp, a terrestrial spin on the traditional mermaid figurehead.
We cross to the river’s northern side, leaving colorful Senegal’s smooth roads, reliable cell connections, and sprawling baobab trees for Mauritania. Here, a sense of weariness imbues the muted landscape of sand dunes and pastel-hued villages. Though both of these West African nations struggle with persistent poverty, life is harder in Mauritania. Desertification has driven nomadic farmers into overwhelmed cities and towns. Crime and terrorism are persistent dangers. The US Department of State ranks Mauritania as a Level 3 destination, out of four in its threat-level scale. As in: “Reconsider Travel.”
Good thing, then, that I’m traveling with that same State Department on this 12-hour desert journey, as a guest on the Diplomatic Courier Service’s current mission, transporting sensitive government materials between the US embassies in the capital cities of Dakar and Nouakchott. Our caravan consists of four gleaming white government vehicles: a Toyota Land Cruiser and Mercedes cargo van up from Dakar, along with two Toyota crew-cab pickups that meet us at the border. We’re on just one of thousands of such trips the service will execute this year as it delivers classified cargo, contained in tamper-proof orange pouches, to 270 US embassies and consulates around the world.
The little-known, 100-year-old Diplomatic Courier Service works like your interoffice mail system, but on a planetary scale, with complex protocols and security measures that ensure the reliable transport of sensitive material by land, air, and sea. Though most communication is digital in the 21st century diplomatic world, physical objects—vital supplies of all sorts—still have to move by secure channels. (Though in fact, with the ever-present threat of hacking, very rare communications might indeed still be delivered via orange pouch.) Employing 103 couriers at 12 hubs around the world, the DCS boasts a delivery success rate that would be the envy of FedEx and UPS. Last year, the service transported 116,351 items weighing approximately 5,353,000 pounds. Snow, rain, heat, or gloom of night? Try war, ebola, diplomatic ejection, or military coup.
Though trucks are queued up on both sides of the river, ready to wait hours for their turn, we get through in just an hour, including the 10-minute crossing and paperwork on both sides. Our fixer is Ibou Ndiaye, a Senegalese who the American embassy hired to drive, translate, and, with his easygoing rapport with the border agents, speed transits. He shows our paperwork and gets our passports stamped. We cut to the front of the line and board as soon as the ferry arrives. On the other side, we’re met by four Mauritanians, employees of the embassy in Nouakchott, who drove six hours to meet us, help manage the north-side border guards, and get us through a series of police checkpoints on the road to the capital.
The other reason we move quickly is that the border agents don’t inspect the cargo that the courier running this trip, Brian Crawford, has piled into the Mercedes van. Regardless of the destination—whether allied or adversarial nation, conflict zone or neutral territory—the pouches skip screening at international borders (thanks to the Vienna Conventions of 1961 and 1963), and a DCS courier stays with them at all times. Crawford remains near the van, never turning away for too long. If the pouches are going by air, their courier watches them until the cargo door is locked. On ocean journeys, they prefer to keep the pouches in their cabins rather than see them disappear into the hold.
For all the fuss surrounding the things, nobody in our party knows what’s inside. The diplomatic pouch is the ultimate MacGuffin. “There’s no briefcase handcuffed to our wrists with invasion plans—it’s not like that,” Crawford jokes. They’re not always full of paper, either. A pouch might contain security equipment or, in one case, medicine that was sent to Moscow to be launched to the International Space Station. Sometimes they’re stuffed with computers, telephones, even chairs. The diplomat or office worker on the receiving end knows that whatever arrives in that orange pouch won’t have had microphones or microchips inserted along the way.
The pouches, made of durable, water-resistant orange canvas, are equipped with tamper-proof locks. Like any UPS package, each carries a label with its origin and destination and a barcode for scanning along the way. The couriers at the hubs coordinate shipments based on the size and number of pouches, the urgency of delivery, and other requests from the diplomats who make up their customers. Then they choose which shipping method makes the most sense, in terms of schedule and budget. The ASAP stuff goes by air. The furniture and photocopiers take the cheaper, slower ground and sea route.
In any given month, the DCS might send pouch-filled pallets to Moscow, Tokyo, London, or São Paulo, a steady stream of individual pouches along familiar routes, or a few deliveries to smaller embassies around the world as they come up. When an embassy is under construction—Mauritania’s Nouakchott embassy, for instance, opened last year—the couriers run the flow of everything that might be destined for controlled-access locations within the embassy, from construction material to office supplies to IT equipment. Frankfurt is by far the busiest hub—bigger even than Washington—thanks to its proximity to the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. Twenty-two couriers are based there, along with the service’s largest warehouse.
For American diplomats, it’s a vital service. “Whatever you have in that pouch will help someone achieve a goal,” says Tulinabo Mushingi, the US ambassador to Senegal. “You need to bring them this thing.” Michael Dodman, the US ambassador to Mauritania, who has also served in Iraq, Turkey, and Poland, says the service has a psychological benefit nearly as great as its practical one. “Even with all the electronic communication we do today, the Diplomatic Courier Service is one of our most valued lifelines to the world.” That's particularly true in times of crisis. Recent examples include courier assistance during the sudden evacuation of a consulate in St. Petersburg, Russia, last year when Russian officials expelled the diplomats, and intense embassy activity after an Al Qaeda-led mass shooting at a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in 2015. I also visited Bamako with the couriers on this trip, dipping in and out in a single day via aircraft since overland routes there aren't ideal. (State's assessment of Mali: "Level 4: Do Not Travel.")
Back in Nouakchott, as we wriggle through the desert city's nearly impenetrable traffic, it’s easy to see how this work can turn nerve-wracking, particularly in risky, chaotic locations. (Diplomatic Security Service agents will occasionally accompany couriers along high-threat routes, though mostly in active conflict zones.) Couriers work grueling schedules. They might spend weeks at sea, aboard cargo ships. They’re constantly weaving and updating complex itineraries that keep their cargo unmolested. Couriers told me of spending nights in the rain atop of a pile of pouches following a missed connection, and of being thwarted by a coup in progress in Africa. Six have died in airplane crashes, including a Gulf Air crash in Bahrain in 2000, after which US Navy Seals recovered the pouches from the submerged wreckage. In 2008, when his cargo plane crashed during takeoff from Brussels, courier Andy Perez helped the crew off the 747—which split in half—then found and secured his pouches. (It earned him a Heroism Award from the State Department.)
Even with the occasional plane crash thrown in, couriers say they’ve got one of the coolest gigs in the State Department. “I absolutely take advantage,” says Crawford, 62, a lifelong traveler who came to the service after careers in real estate in Hawaii and the aviation industry in Europe. “I explore when I’m off the clock. You start to appreciate the little pleasures, the repeat performances from so many trips along the same route. There’s a fantastic restaurant in the middle of the Brazilian outback, for instance, that we visit every time.”
Another courier, whom the State Department asked not be named for security reasons, says the work offers experiences few travelers can claim. “I can't believe I'm, say, driving between Georgia and Armenia, or driving across Africa,” he says. “It involves modes of transport you wouldn't spend a dime of your own money on, or places you wouldn't think to go to on you own but which proved to be so surprising and beautiful."
For a government agency, the DCS has an extraordinary success rate. Nobody at the service could remember a single lost pouch or unsuccessful delivery in the service’s modern history, though missions can be aborted for political, weather, or mechanical reasons if necessary. The service did once manage to lose a baby grand piano along the Orient Express in 1919. Evidently, the courier—David K E Bruce, later a renowned diplomat—slept beneath it on a railway platform in Bulgaria and woke to find the piano was gone. It remains the only lost ‘pouch’ in service history .
Of course, there are plenty of close calls. Crawford remembers one trip from the hub in Frankfurt to Iraq. The service hired a foreign carrier to fly several pallets of pouches to Baghdad in an Antonov cargo airplane. They landed at the same time as another Antonov carrying Russian equipment, and the ground controller misdirected each aircraft to the other’s ramp. “I opened the door and none of our people were there,” Crawford says. “Then I look again and see what appears to be the entire high command of the Iraqi military coming toward me.”
Crawford met the welcoming committee, found someone who spoke passable English, and began practicing his diplomatic skills in earnest. The Iraqis looked at the pouches, took photos, and finally gave them the green light to move to the proper ramp. “The last thing one of them said was, ‘We’d like to thank you for all the United States does for the country of Iraq,’” Crawford says. “It was awesome. Then I shouted up to the cockpit, ‘Boris, get us over to the right place, dammit!’”
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