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Reply-All E-mail Storm Hits State Department

WASHINGTON - Many "reply all" fiascos result in mere embarrassment, but American diplomats have been told they may be punished for sending mass responses after an e-mail storm nearly knocked out one of the State Department's main electronic communications systems.

A cable sent last week to all employees at the department's Washington headquarters and overseas missions warns of unspecified "disciplinary actions" for using the "reply to all" function on e-mail with large distribution lists.

The cable, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, was prompted by a major interruption in departmental e-mail caused by numerous diplomats hitting "reply all" to an errant message inadvertently addressed and copied to several thousand recipients.

"Department staff hitting 'reply to all' on an e-mail with a large distribution list is causing an e-mail storm on the department's OpenNet e-mail system," says the unclassified cable that was sent Thursday by Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy.

He said the result was "effectively a denial of service as e-mail queues, especially between posts, back up while processing the extra volume of e-mails."

The cable orders employees to "take immediate action" to ensure they and their colleagues are "aware of the negative impact of hitting 'reply all'" and to delete e-mails addressed to large numbers of people that they might receive in error.

"Anyone who disregards these instructions will be subject to disciplinary actions," Kennedy wrote in the cable, which begins: "Please ensure widest distribution of this message."

Officials said the storm started when some diplomats used the 'reply all' function to respond to a blank e-mail sent recently to many people on the department's global address list.

Most demanded to be removed from the list while others used 'reply all' to tell their co-workers, in often less than diplomatic language, to stop responding to the entire group, the officials said.

Some then compounded the problem by trying to recall their initial replies, which generated another round of messages to the group, they said.