J. Kael Weston’s The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan (Excerpt)

Posted: 1:45 am ET

“When we look into that mirror, let’s not turn away.”
-J. Kael Weston

Richard Holbrooke in The Longest War called John Kael Weston “a remarkable young Foreign Service officer after he established a direct dialogue with tribal leaders, university students, mullahs, madrassa students and even Taliban defectors in 2008.

Dexter Filkins, the author of The Forever War wrote that “As a front-line political officer for the State Department, Weston has perhaps seen more of Iraq and Afghanistan than any single American. But what makes this book special–what makes Weston special–is his ability to transcend his own experience and bring it all home, and force us, as Americans, to ask ourselves the larger questions that these wars demand. This is a necessary book, and one that will last.” 

Phil Klay, the author of Redeployment and winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction  and the John Leonard First Book Prize wrote that the books is “a riveting, on-the-ground look at American policy and its aftermath” and “is essential reading for anyone seeking to come to terms with our endless wars.”

John Kael Weston joined the State Department in 2001. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan as the State Department representative in Anbar Province, Iraq, and Helmand and Khost Provinces in Afghanistan (http://www.jkweston.com). He has a twin brother Kyle Weston who works for a Utah-based outsourcing company and wrote about experiencing war through a twin.  Prior to serving in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, he served at USUN in 2003.  He is the recipient of the Secretary of State’’s Medal for Heroism.  He left government service in 2010.  Read an excerpt below courtesy of Amazon Kindle/Preview:

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click on image to read the excerpt



Ron Capps: Seriously Not All Right, Five Wars in Ten Years (Excerpt)

Posted: 5:23 pm PT


Ron Capps is a U.S. Army veteran and a former Foreign Service officer. He served in the military from 1986 until the early 1990’s. In 1994, he moved to the Army Reserved and joined the Foreign Service. His FS assignments took him to Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Kosovo, and Rwanda. Between 1996-2002, he also deployed as an intelligence officer in Uganda and Zaire for the U.S. Army.  According to his online bio, after the September 11 attacks, he served with XVIII Airborne Corps and the Defense intelligence Agency in Afghanistan as a soldier. Later, he was also deployed to Darfur and Chad as a soldier, and Iraq and Darfur (again) as a Foreign Service officer. “Throughout his career of service, Capps was often working in close proximity to murder, rape, and genocide. He suffered from regular and intense nightmares; he was diagnosed by an Army psychiatrist with PTSD and depression, and prescribed Prozac. In 2006, he nearly committed suicide. He was medically evacuated from service by the Regional Medical Officer of the State Department.”

He retired from government work and pursued a Master of Arts in Writing from Johns Hopkins University in 2009. In 2012, he founded the Veterans Writing Project, a non-profit organization that hosts free writing workshops and seminars for veterans and service members, as well as their adult family members.  VWP is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. You can support the group with a tax-deductible donation or through the Amazon Smile program.

Ron Capps is the author of the book, Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years, which details his own experiences with PTSD.  To mark June as PTSD Awareness Month, we’re sharing an excerpt from Mr. Capps’ book with you (courtesy of Amazon Kindle).

Via Amazon/Kindle

Click on image to read an excerpt or buy the book  Book cover via Amazon Kindle


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FSO Matthew Palmer’s New Book — The Wolf of Sarajevo (Excerpt)

Posted: 12:08 am ET


In February 2015, we did an excerpt of Matthew Palmer’s book, The American Mission (see Move Over Jason Bourne! Meet Diplomat Alex Baines, Our New Favorite Fictional Hero). In June 2015, he came out with a new book Secrets of State and a new protagonist, former FSO Sam Trainor. This May, he is back with a new thriller featuring FSO Eric Petrofina, back at the American Embassy in Sarajevo after 20 years.

Matt Palmer was a desk officer for Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) through the end of the 1999 Kosovo conflict. He was  also posted twice to the American Embassy in Belgrade, initially as a first-tour officer at the height of the war in Bosnia and, later as the political counselor.  He speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian, and his many experiences in the region served as inspiration for The Wolf of Sarajevo.  We’re looking forward to reading his third book.  We’re pleased to share an excerpt below courtesy of Amazon Kindle.

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click on image to read the excerpt |recommends using the “full view” for easier navigation (see lower right hand side of screen after excerpt displays on screen)



America’s War Machine: If you think @StateDept runs American foreign policy … (book excerpt)

Posted: 3:04 am ET


James H. McCartney had covered every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Bill Clinton. McCartney covered the White House, the State department, the Pentagon and relevant committees on Capitol Hill. He reported from about 30 countries, including Vietnam, the Soviet Union, the Middle East and Europe. After retirement from daily journalism, he taught courses in foreign policy and politics at Georgetown University. McCartney’s papers, including about 4,000 of his articles, are in the Special Collections Research Center at Georgetown University’s Lauringer Library.

Molly Sinclair McCartney worked as a newspaper reporter more than 25 years, including 14 years at the Washington Post. In 2012 she was appointed a Woodrow Wilson Public Scholar in Washington D.C. to do the research and interviews needed to finish America’s War Machine.

“You knew, if you were a government spokesman, that you’d better have it straight and you’d better have the facts, because he’d keep coming at you…He was not there to enhance the government. He was there to inform the people. I didn’t know anyone I respected more than Jim.” ―Hodding Carter, former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and State Department spokesman

Book excerpt from America’s War Machine: Vested Interests, Endless Conflicts, courtesy of Amazon Kindle:

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AAFSW Book: Raising Kids in the Foreign Service (Edited by Leah Moorefield Evans)

Posted: 12:10 am EDT


This is AAFSW’s latest book for families. Titled “Raising Kids in the Foreign Service,” it has 31 essays and a resource list written by family members and officers. It has chapters on education, transition, tandem parenting, mindfulness, clutter, and a wide variety of topics important to parents living abroad. We understand that Patricia Linderman shepherded the book with Leah Evans from idea to publication.  You may read an excerpt below courtesy of Amazon Kindle:

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You might want to check the other AAFSW books: The Foreign Service Companion: Moving Your Household Without Losing Your Mind by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide and Kelly Bembry Midura and Realities of Foreign Service Life, Volume 2 by Patricia Linderman and Melissa Brayer Hess.

The Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide (AAFSW) was established in 1960 and was responsible for the creation of the Family Liaison OfficeOverseas Briefing Center, and the Foreign Service Youth Foundation.

By the way, Nicholas Kralev’s America’s Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st-Century Diplomacy has also been updated and released on second edition, so check that out, too. 




Ambassador Michael Punke’s ‘The Revenant’ — on NYT Best Sellers For 9th Week

Posted: 7:31 pm EDT


Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s movie  The Revenant has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards in this year’s Oscars including Actor in a Leading Role for Leonardo DiCaprio, Actor in a Supporting Role Tom Hardy, and directing and best picture.  The New York Times writes that among the hopeful novelists who will be closely watching Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, only one has negotiated a $1.3 trillion global trade deal. The NYT is talking about Michael Punke, the deputy United States Trade Representative and the United States ambassador to the World Trade Organization. He is the author of the 2002 novel “The Revenant” which inspired the movie. The book  sold around 15,000 copies after it was first published according to NYT.  It had apparently been out of print before the movie started shooting but a new hardcover came out in 2015. “The Revenant” has reportedly sold more than half a million copies, and Picador has reprinted the book 21 times.

Ambassador Punke was originally nominated by President Obama as Deputy Trade Representative – Geneva, Office of the United States Trade Representative in 2009. He was recess appointed in 2010 and finally confirmed by the Senate in the fall of 2011 (also see Deputy USTR Ambassador Michael Punke’s The Revenant: Now a Movie With Leonardo DiCaprio).

Due to his government position, he reportedly can’t give any interviews about the book, or even sign copies. The NYT says that “Federal ethics rules prohibit him from any activities that would be “self-enriching” or could be seen as an abuse of his post.”  The Office of Government Ethics has a handout relating to book deals and government employees (PDF), and a pretty complex guidelines for particularly covered noncareer (CNC) employees and Presidential appointees to full-time noncareer positions (PA).

It took 14 years but on the week of January 17, 2016, the book hit #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers and has remained on the list for the last 9 weeks.  Enjoy the excerpt courtesy of Amazon/Kindle Instant Preview:

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Raymond Bonner: The Diplomat and the Killer (via ProPublica)

Posted: 1:45  am EDT


The article below has been adapted from Raymond Bonner’s “Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War,” which is being republished with a new prologue and epilogue. The book which received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award is also available from Amazon here.  Raymond Bonner is a former foreign correspondent for The The New York Times and staff writer at The New Yorker. He is also the author of the memorable Waltzing With a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy.  (Below republished under Creative Commons).

In December of 1980, Salvadoran soldiers brutally raped and murdered four American churchwomen. A young U.S. diplomat singlehandedly cracked the case, cultivating an improbable source who risked everything to gather the key evidence.


On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen — an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary — sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.

Two days later, White and a crowd of reporters gathered as the bodies of the four Americans were pulled by ropes from a shallow grave near the airport. The black-and-white photos snapped that day document a grisly crime. The women were dressed in ordinary clothes — slacks and blouses. Investigators would conclude that all had been sexually assaulted before they were dispatched with execution-style gunshots to the head. White, grim-faced and tieless in the heat, knew immediately who was behind the crime. This time, he vowed, the Salvadoran government would not get away with murder, even if it cost him his career.

In the years since, much has come to light about this pivotal event in the history of U.S. interventions in Central America. But the full story of how one of the most junior officers in the U.S. embassy in San Salvador tracked down the killers has never been told. It is the tale of an improbable bond between a Salvadoran soldier with a guilty conscience and a young American diplomat with a moral conscience. Different as they were, both men shared a willingness to risk their lives in the name of justice.

In November of 1980, just weeks before the churchwomen were abducted, H. Carl Gettinger was sitting at his desk in the U.S. embassy when the phone rang. On the line was Colonel Eldon Cummings, the commander of the U.S. military group in El Salvador, who said there was a lieutenant from the Salvadoran National Guard in his office who could tell Gettinger about the harsh tactics of the guerrillas. The soldier was well-placed; El Salvador’s National Guard was an essential part of the country’s internal security apparatus. It operated as “a kind of landlords’ militia in the countryside,” as White wrote in a prescient, 1980 cable that analyzed the forces that would fuel the country’s civil war.

Gettinger, then 26 years old, was considered something of a liberal, in part because, like White, he supported the pro-human rights approach of President Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan’s predecessor. Adding to his reputation as a “proto-communist,” as Gettinger mockingly described himself, was that he had a beard and was often incorrectly assumed to be Jewish (he was called “Getzinger” when he first arrived). “I looked like a lefty rabbi,” Gettinger told me.

Gettinger informed Cummings that he did not need to hear more about the cruelty of the guerrilla forces. “I already know that,” he said. But Gettinger viewed his job as talking to everyone, and he had a knack for putting people at ease. His mother, who was Mexican, had taught him, Hablando se entiende la gente (“By talking, people understand each other”). He was born in Calexico, California, and spent many youthful days with his cousins, aunts, and uncles across the border in Mexicali, where his mother was born. Growing up in San Diego, Carl lost himself in National Geographic magazines and would dream about going to exotic lands. One day, when he was about 14, Carl asked his father what he should do with his life. “Try the Foreign Service,” his father said, without looking up from his newspaper.

Gettinger’s first posting had been in Chile, where he was assigned to the consular section. He quickly grew bored handling visa requests, and used his fluency in Spanish to moonlight for the embassy’s political section. When the State Department asked for volunteers to work in El Salvador, he didn’t hesitate. It was the place for a young diplomat to make his mark. In neighboring Nicaragua, the Marxist Sandinistas had come to power, and Washington was worried that El Salvador would be the next domino to fall. Gettinger arrived in the first months of a decade-long civil war that would be marked by peasant massacres and the loss of some 75,000 civilian lives, most killed by government forces.

Cummings walked the Salvadoran lieutenant, who was dressed in civilian clothes, over to Gettinger’s office, introduced him, and left. The lieutenant, whom Gettinger described as “mean and low-brow with the flattened face of a boxer,” began by saying that the guerrillas had killed both his father and a brother, and that he was playing a role in the dirty war. On one occasion, he said, soldiers under his command had picked up three “kids” who were suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers. After briefly interrogating them, the lieutenant thought they should be released, but a sergeant told him they were “unreformed.” The lieutenant ordered them executed. He had also killed several men who he thought might pose a threat to his own life. “He seemed to have a lot that he wanted to get off his chest,” Gettinger recalled.

But the diplomat was not prepared for what was to come. “It was the single most ironic twist in my 31 and something-year career,” Gettinger told me. (He retired from the Foreign Service in 2009 after several years in Japan and tours in Pakistan and Iraq — a decision he described as “wrenching” since the service “had been my whole life.”)

After expressing his distaste for the left, the lieutenant lashed out with equal contempt for El Salvador’s right. The lieutenant, who was born into a lower-class family, said the country’s oligarchs were using the military to do their dirty work. Soldiers should fight to defeat communism, not to enrich powerful landlords, he said.

Gettinger banged out a cable recounting his hour-long conversation with the lieutenant, who was unofficially dubbed “Killer” around the embassy. The message was stamped NODIS [no distribution], a higher classification level than SECRET, and only a limited number of copies were made. Gettinger described the lieutenant as “badly educated,” and “a savage individual who feels victimized both by the left and by the GN [National Guard] hierarchy.” In cables to Washington about the information it was learning, the embassy tended to refer to Gettinger as “the officer” and the lieutenant as “the source.” (In 1993 and 1994, shortly after the end of El Salvador’s civil war, the Clinton administration released thousands of previously classified documents pertaining to human-rights abuses during the conflict.)

In subsequent cables, the embassy told Washington that the “source” had been “deep inside extreme right wing fringe group activities” and “closely associated with rightists such as Major Roberto D’Aubuisson,” the notorious and charismatic right-wing leader. The lieutenant said that he had bombed a Catholic radio station and the Jesuit-run Central American University on orders from D’Aubuisson’s aides. (In the 1970s and 80s, as many priests and nuns in Latin America embraced the doctrine of “liberation theology,” which focused on the poor and oppressed, the rich and powerful came to view the Church as an enemy.) But he said that he had grown disenchanted as D’Aubuisson and his followers morphed into gunrunners and smugglers, motivated as much by money as political ideology.

The lieutenant told Gettinger that D’Aubuisson had been an architect of the assassination of the revered Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was murdered inside a church while saying Mass in March 1980. A couple days before the shooting, the lieutenant said, he had attended a meeting chaired by D’Aubuisson at which soldiers drew lots for the chance to kill the archbishop. There had long been rumors of D’Aubuisson’s involvement in the assassination, but this was the first concrete evidence the Americans had. (No one has ever been prosecuted for the murder. In 2015, Pope Francis declared that Romero had died a martyr and would be beatified, the final step before sainthood. D’Aubuisson died in 1992, at the age of 48, of throat cancer.)

Two weeks after Gettinger first met the lieutenant, on December 2, 1980, the Maryknoll nuns Maura Clarke, 49, and Ita Ford, 40, were returning from a Maryknoll conference in Nicaragua, where left-wing guerrillas had recently toppled President Anastasio Somoza and his American-backed dictatorship. They were met at the airport shortly after 6 o’clock in the evening by the two women who had joined White over dinner the previous evening: Dorothy Kazel, 41, and Jean Donovan, 27, a lay missionary who was engaged to be married.

The next day, the burned-out shell of their white Toyota minivan was found about five miles from the airport. On December 4, the vicar of San Vicente called the U.S. embassy to report that the bodies of the four women had been discovered near the airport. When White heard this, he rushed to the scene.


A handful of insiders knew that the trial would never have occurred were it not for Carl Gettinger. “It was through his persistent efforts” that the names of the perpetrators were obtained, wrote Pimentel, the FBI agent, when he recommended that Gettinger be honored by the FBI. “He did this knowing full well that inquiries of this nature could very well bring about physical harm to his person.” FBI Director William Webster agreed. “It is doubtful this matter would have been resolved so quickly without your aggressive pursuit and your personal interest in seeing justice served,” Webster wrote Gettinger in June of 1981. Gettinger couldn’t talk about the honor. Pimentel’s recommendation and Webster’s letter were classified secret. They have since been declassified and released, but the identity of Gettinger’s source — the National Guard lieutenant — remains a secret to this day.

Gettinger believes the lieutenant was killed in the early 1990s, by which point he had left the military and was operating a bus service. In 1998, an American diplomat relayed the story to Gettinger: One day, a bus the former officer was driving was stopped on the highway, whether by soldiers or guerrillas is unclear. “Killer” wasn’t one to go down without a fight, and he came out guns blazing. He lost.

The exceptional secrecy surrounding Gettinger’s work was evident when he received one of the State Department’s highest honors, the W. Averell Harriman Award for “creative dissent,” in the fall of 1982 during a public ceremony in the department’s auditorium. In presenting the certificate, Harriman, one of the “wise men” of American foreign policy, commended Gettinger for having “argued his conclusions whatever the potential risk to his own career.” Harriman offered no details about how Gettinger had earned the honor, only that it involved American citizens. The handful of officials who knew the story smiled; nearly everyone else in the audience was left wondering what highly classified issue could have prompted “creative dissent” by such a junior officer.

Read in full, The Diplomat and the Killer via ProPublica.

Here is a short video from retroreport.org on the search for justice.  See the site for more on this.

We’ve mentioned Hugo Carl Gettinger in passing here when we blogged previously about the May 2006  Accountability Review Board To Examine the Circumstances of the Death of David E. Foy and Mr. Iftikhar Ahmed in March 2006, Karachi, Pakistan. Secretary Rice appointed him Executive Secretary to that Board.


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Eyes Watching: Real Foreign Service Officers and Puzzle Pieces

Posted: 2:09 am EDT


Jonathan Haslam is the author of “Near and Distant Neighbors: A New History of Soviet Intelligence,” which was just published.He is the George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He was a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale and Stanford, and is a member of the society of scholars at the Johns Hopkins University. He pens the following piece via Salon:


Other indicators of a more trivial nature could be detected in the field by a vigilant foreign counterintelligence operative but not uniformly so: the fact that CIA officers replacing one another tended to take on the same post within the embassy hierarchy, drive the same make of vehicle, rent the same apartment and so on. Why? Because the personnel office in Langley shuffled and dealt overseas postings with as little effort as required. The invariable indicators took further research, however, based on U.S. government practices long established as a result of the ambivalence with which the State Department treated its cousins in intelligence.

Thus one productive line of inquiry quickly yielded evidence: the differences in the way agency officers undercover as diplomats were treated from genuine foreign service officers (FSOs). The pay scale at entry was much higher for a CIA officer; after three to four years abroad a genuine FSO could return home, whereas an agency employee could not; real FSOs had to be recruited between the ages of 21 and 31, whereas this did not apply to an agency officer; only real FSOs had to attend the Institute of Foreign Service for three months before entering the service; naturalized Americans could not become FSOs for at least nine years but they could become agency employees; when agency officers returned home, they did not normally appear in State Department listings; should they appear they were classified as research and planning, research and intelligence, consular or chancery for security affairs; unlike FSOs, agency officers could change their place of work for no apparent reason; their published biographies contained obvious gaps; agency officers could be relocated within the country to which they were posted, FSOs were not; agency officers usually had more than one working foreign language; their cover was usually as a “political” or “consular” official (often vice-consul); internal embassy reorganizations usually left agency personnel untouched, whether their rank, their office space or their telephones; their offices were located in restricted zones within the embassy; they would appear on the streets during the working day using public telephone boxes; they would arrange meetings for the evening, out of town, usually around 7.30 p.m. or 8.00 p.m.; and whereas FSOs had to observe strict rules about attending dinner, agency officers could come and go as they pleased.

Read in full here. Sounds like his book is an excellent addition to a gift list for OGA friends.


Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse

Posted: 2:55 am EDT


We’ve previously featured Donna Scaramastra Gorman in this blog. She writes the Email From The Embassy blog and she’s out with a book! Check out Am I Going to Starve to Death?: A Survival Guide for the Foreign Service Spouse.


Click on image to see the book on Amazon

One reviewer on Amazon writes, “The first few paragraphs have me smirk, scoff and snort. It’s about time the Foreign Service has a guide that doesn’t bullsh*t. FS life is cool and fascinating but it’s not always pretty. Nor glamourous.”


By way of introduction, Donna writes this:

There is a saying in the State Department: “It depends.”[…] It’s terrifying, in a way, that the answer to every question you have about the Foreign Service can be summed up with those two little words.

That’s the State Department’s unofficial motto. We’ll entertain an alternative unofficial motto, but we don’t think you’ll find one.

Ambassador John Ordway (former ambassador to Armenia and Kazakhstan) gave the book five stars on Amazon and writes:  “With 40 years living the Foreign Service life under my belt, I found myself chuckling with fond recollection on nearly every page. Based on her years of experience trotting the globe for the U.S. State Department, Donna Gorman explains (and predicts) some of the lessons we’ve all learned — and maybe wish we had not learned. No matter where you’re coming from or where you’re headed, I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a new arsenal of useful tips for things to do, and not do, as you contemplate the Foreign Service life.”

We enjoyed reading this book. It feels familiar but also informal like the author is chatting with a friend who doesn’t yet know anything about the Foreign Service.  It is a fun read but also painful in some parts. We remember — boy, we’re old — back in 2007, Donna also lost her hearing on the right ear due to a viral infection when her family was posted in China.  Anyway, yup, cried over Chapter 27 of this book, probably the hardest part to read.  Will this book scare off people interested in the Foreign Service? Can’t tell, of course, but we’d say it would be best to know more and learn to manage one’s expectations, than know so little that one expects a charmed life abroad.

Here’s a brief bio:  Donna Scaramastra Gorman is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Huffington Post, the Foreign Service Journal, the Seattle Times, Parade Magazine, the Insider’s Guide to Beijing and several other outlets.  Gorman is a Foreign Service spouse, married to a federal agent with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. They and their four children have been posted together in Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, China, Jordan and the U.S. Gorman also spent a year as a single parent while her husband completed a tour in Baghdad.  They are currently posted in Moscow.


Matthew Palmer on MSNBC Talks About Diplomats and His New Book, Secrets of State

Posted: 12:08 am EDT

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FSO Matthew Palmer at Politics & Prose with new thriller — Secrets of State, June 1, 7pm

Move Over Jason Bourne! Meet Diplomat Alex Baines, Our New Favorite Fictional Hero