'Reply all' triumphs over U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON — The last thing I would ever want to do is insult or embarrass the dedicated men and women of the U.S. diplomatic corps, even if they often behave as though their principal responsibility involves personally negotiating world peace as opposed to personally consuming hors d'oeuvres.

Unfortunately, something happened last month that requires me — under the terms, conditions and codicils of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — to give these folks a public noogie.

It turns out that for about 10 days in January, a principal electronic communications system of the U.S. State Department was seriously disabled — nearly asphyxiated altogether — by an internal logjam of peevish e-mails. It happened after thousands of U.S. diplomatic officials stationed around the globe were sent the same blank piece of spam. Instead of ignoring it or erasing it, many tapped out indignant requests not to be so bothered again, and then hit "reply all." That proved to be a problem: Mathematically, when each of a thousand people responds to a thousand people each, the numbers build exponentially (particularly after the new recipients then start testily lecturing the senders on the inadvisability of responding via "reply all," and doing so via "reply all").

After management sent out a beseeching directive to stop the madness, many foreign-based diplomats — less familiar than statesiders with the protocols of electronic communication — apparently decided that the best way to rectify this situation was to "recall" their original message. Alas, when you do that, it generates yet another message to every single original recipient, duly notifying him of your change of heart.

One amused but exasperated guy sent out this haiku:

STATE workers helpless

Captive to this e-mail worm

Tech guys please save us

(Yeah, he sent it to everyone.)

The inane e-mail storm abated only after a State Department honcho, bypassing the beleaguered e-mail system altogether, sent a cable that threatened disciplinary action against anyone hitting "reply all."

If this were not Washington, the story would end there, since the State Department is famously button-lipped, using authorized spokespersonages whose official language is American Harrumph.

But inasmuch as it is Washington, there is more to the story, because there is a Secret Source. He e-mailed me using some sort of encryption device so the e-mail appeared to come from a sender named "Withheld." But he is a pretty inept secret source, since his real e-mail address also appeared in parentheses. This allowed me to e-mail him back, at which point he gave me more information but refused under any circumstances to tell me his name. Unfortunately, at the top of this e-mail in which he refused to tell me his name, his name appears.

Still, "off the record" is off the record, so I am just going to call him Deep Thread. That is because he had dug all the way back through the e-mail storm to find the person who had sent the original spam that caused all the trouble.

It turns out, says Deep Thread, that this was not some diabolical plot hatched by a hostile foreign government. The spammer apparently was some poor schmo in a New England passports office whose computer was infected with a worm that dispatched that blank e-mail to the department's global address book.

I called the guy.

Me: I am reliably informed that you, a mild-mannered passports officer, single-handedly brought to its knees a Cabinet-level department of the United States of America. On behalf of powerless, desk-bound bureaucrats everywhere, I salute you.

Poor Schmo: Uh.

Me: Have you anything to say on this momentous occasion?

PS: I am going to have to refer you to the proper channels.

Me: No! Not the old "proper channels" dodge! Don't be a stereotypical sniveling bureaucrat.

PS: I am going to terminate this conversation.

He did give me a phone number that he said would connect me to someone who could officially answer my questions. It turned out to be a four-minute State Department customer service recording offering information on such subjects as how to prevent child abductions on foreign soil.

So this is the way my quest ends, not with a bang, but a wimp-out.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. You can chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.

'Reply all' triumphs over U.S. State Department 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 3:30am]

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