BERLIN - A so-called flame mail (critical or abusive email) is probably what ex-CIA director David Petraeus’ ex-mistress Paula Broadwell sent in a fit of anger (about exactly what remains unclear) to Jill Kelley, a socialite with ties to the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Of course saying Broadwell “sent” mail to Jill Kelley isn’t quite correct since we’re talking about electronic mail here. But what is true is that we often write and send emails in the heat of the moment instead of cooling down and thinking things through.
The missives – or at least this is what Kelley told General John Allen, with whom she exchanged an impressive volume of emails – were unwelcome and inappropriate. You could say that is the case with the vast majority of the 300 billion emails sent worldwide every day, except that these are mainly advertising, not private, messages. But they are no less pushy and annoying than the constant repetition of the word spam in the famous Monty Python sketch that ended up giving such messages their name.
If private emails represent a tiny fraction of all emails sent today, they originally weren’t meant to exist at all. Email was developed 50 years ago – in 1962 – so that universities doing research for the U.S. Department of Defense could exchange information. A U.S. research group came up with the Internet’s predecessor – the ARPANET, standing for Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The system made it possible to send small packets of information by phone. For research purposes only, of course.
However, the fact that Broadwell’s nasty message campaign came to light shortly before the medium’s 50th birthday has definite timeliness. It didn’t only open up the whole Petraeus/Broadwell affair and Kelly/Allen entanglement up to public view – it turned out to be a Pandora’s box about email, its uses, and security, and offers a marked contrast between what the medium was originally intended for and what it has become.
Staying serious and professional
The iconic @ sign didn’t come along until 1972, when ARPANET programmer Ray Tomlinson implemented an email system. Such were things at the time that when a group of science fiction-loving researchers created a group they dubbed "SF LOVERS" to exchange information, it was frowned on by ARPA as lacking the requisite seriousness and professional nature.
But there was ultimately no way of stopping the burgeoning force of email, even if for a long time it stayed among academics. The first email to Germany was sent in 1984 on August 2, arriving on August 3, from CSNET to the University of Karlsruhe. It was addressed to Internet pioneer Michael Rotert (rotert@germany) and read: "Michael, this is your official welcome to CSNET."
Thirty years later, Petraeus’ hundreds of considerably wordier emails to Broadwell show that the medium has evolved among other things into a universal tool initiating, carrying on, and ending relationships. Even for CIA directors – begging the question as to where high-ranking men with a lot of responsibility find the time for all this, not to mention their blatant ignorance about just how traceable all emails are.
Unfortunately, none of Petraeus’ words have made their way (yet) into the public arena. Nor have any of the 10 million words Allen and Kelley exchanged over a two-year period. Although the Kelly/Allen relationship was supposedly platonic, and the tone of the mails just friendly, the sheer volume of things they had to say to each does suggest some sort of erotic twist.
A final note: The expression flame mail – like nastygram – meaning “ugly messages,” never really caught on. Today any net attack is likely to be referred to as a shitstorm: The expression was originally used to describe exchanges among officials in the Kremlin and the White House – non-private ones, needless to say, and in an on-going Cold War, anything but hot.