Alex Beam

The best of inconsequential hacked e-mails

One of the new realities we live with, like rising sea levels or mass shootings, is the gargantuan information hack. How to react? I’m sure the 170,000 hacked e-mails from Sony Pictures that suddenly appeared starting in 2014 were more than a nightmare for studio boss Amy Pascal.

On the one hand, I felt sorry for her. Her communications, which she had every reason to think would remain private, showed her to be a perfectly competent executive. On the other hand, I devoured hundreds of her e-mails, reveling in the tawdry gossip about flopped movies and Hollywood eminentoes.

The famous-notorious 2010 Wikileaks publication of 251,287 State Department cables had immediate consequences. Local politicians or ordinary citizens who fed information to American diplomats were exposed all over the world. The Americans’ too-candid assessment of Tunisia’s president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was said to be one catalyst for the ensuing uprisings of the Arab Spring.


Then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton drolly, and perhaps presciently, remarked, “I will be answering concerns about WikiLeaks for the rest of my life.”

Northeastern international relations professor Mary Thompson-Jones, a former foreign service officer, saw the cables not as a problem but as an opportunity. They provide the raw material for her unsensational but fascinating new book, “To the Secretary: Leaked Embassy Cables and America’s Foreign Policy Disconnect.” A more accurate subtitle might be: “What Diplomats Really Do.”

They do a lot of things. They react to natural disasters; the cables from Haiti following the 2010 earthquake are particularly eloquent and grim. Consular officers interviewed the Iranian garage band Yellow Dogs, who were eventually granted political asylum in the United States. The Dogs told embassy officers about their fondness for Guitar Hero and about the drug scene in Teheran, hardly normal fodder for diplomatic cables.

I loved the subchapter “Meet the Scoundrels,” part of a chapter called “Frenemies.” Foreign service officers meet plenty of scoundrels, e.g., Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, famed homophobe and medical charlatan. Another amusing subchapter is “People Who Just Don’t Like Us.” Basically: Get in line.

My favorite chapter was “Wild Animals.” Diplomats spend a lot of time reporting on animal welfare concerns, large and small. “No one wrote about wildlife in George Kennan’s time,” author Thompson-Jones notes, referring to the legendary 20th-century diplomat. Now “the volume of reporting is astounding.”


Bird-watching FSOs found a flock of badly disoriented Croatian white storks in a Somalian village. The birds perished from mysterious causes. Less intrigue attended the fate of such exotic animals as Malayan sun bears, pangolins, macaques, langurs, civets, leopards and other delicacies routinely found in Vietnamese restaurants.

The US Embassy in Hanoi fired off a cable titled “We Eat Everything on Four Legs Except the Table,” which chronicled the Vietnamese’s catholic tastes in endangered species. The Embassy cynically referred to Vietnam’s version of PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals.

Thompson-Jones devotes her final chapter to “Hillary Clinton: The Good Enough Secretary.” Jones served under Clinton, and the faint praise is very much heartfelt. “The list of accomplishments seems fairly short for a secretary of state of her stature,” the author writes. “She had a penchant for racking up second-tier wins.”

Where Clinton is concerned, Jones had access to a second e-mail trove: the thousands of memos declassified from Clinton’s notorious private server. “The Clinton e-mails suggest a reason for the lack of impact,” says Jones. “Her inner circle was often distracted, already positioning for the run for the White House.”

It’s a fine book, but I’m afraid it won’t win an ambassadorship for Thompson-Jones in a putative Clinton administration. That’s a compliment, to be sure.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot .