Computer Specialists Tell of Threats on Lost White House E-Mailsgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Computer Specialists Tell of Threats In Hearing on Lost White House E-Mails Updated 8:49 p.m. ET (0149 GMT) March 23, 2000 By John P. Martin WASHINGTON Three computer specialists told a Congressional panel Thursday that Clinton administration officials threatened to jail them if they told anyone including their spouses about thousands of White House e-mails lost at the same time investigators were searching for evidence of administration corruption.
AP/Wide World Testimony at the House hearing said the e-mails under investigation had information on the vice president and campaign finance issues
Two White House officials later denied any such threats, but said they couldn't recall whether they had asked the computer staffers to keep quiet about the missing messages.
The witnesses, Northrop Grumman employees contracted to operate the White House computer system, said the effort to fix the e-mail flaw was so secret they gave it a code name Project X and had to retreat to a nearby park or coffee shop to discuss it among themselves.
One of them, systems administrator Robert Haas, testified that he was told that if he spoke publicly, "There would be a jail cell with my name on it."
The statements came as the House Government Reform Committee opened a hearing into how incoming e-mails sent to nearly 500 White House accounts from outside the administration escaped scrutiny between 1996 and 1998.
The lost mail occurred at a time when members of Congress, the Justice Department and the Office of the Independent Counsel had issued subpoenas demanding all relevant White House documents related to campaign fund-raising, the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, and President Clinton's relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.
The White House has insisted the error that caused the e-mail problem was "entirely unintentional," blaming it on technicians who inadvertently capitalized the name of the mail server designed to store the messages, effectively sending them to a storage server that didn't exist.
Counsel Beth Nolan also revealed in a letter last week to committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., that a second flaw might have prevented the storage of incoming e-mails to 200 accounts in late 1998. Nolan also said specialists were trying to determine if a similar snafu affected the e-mail system used by the office of the vice president.
Nolan, one of three White House officials subpoenaed by the committee, wrote that it is unclear how many messages or contents of those messages have been affected. By some accounts, the White House receives about 20,000 e-mails each day.
According to testimony early Thursday from the workers, the problem was first detected in January 1998 by Daniel A. Barry, a White House computer staffer, when lawyers asked Barry to search the server for e-mails related to Lewinsky.
Barry said he noticed two messages sent to Lewinsky by her friend, Ashley Raines, the White House Director of Office and Policy Development Operations, but he couldn't find corresponding e-mails from Lewinsky. He reported the incident to a supervisor, but wasn't sure whether the glitch was an anomaly or systematic of a bigger problem with the e-mail server.
Nearly six months passed before another specialist, Yiman Salim, noticed a similar glitch and determined the problem was widespread, she told the panel. After reporting it to her boss, Salim and four other Northrop Grumman workers were called in June 1998 to the office of Laura Crabtree, a branch chief for customer service computer support in the White House. Mark Lindsay, counsel for the White House Office of Administration, joined the meeting by speakerphone.
Three of those employees Haas, Betty Lambuth and Sandra Golas testified that Lindsay told them to fix the e-mail flaw but warned that they could be fired or arrested if they discussed it with anyone, including their Northrop Grumman manager, Steve Hawkins.
Haas said he flippantly asked what would happen if he told his wife.
"Miss Crabtree responded that there would be a jail cell with my name on it," he told the panel.
Asked during the hearing by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., if he thought Crabtree's response was designed to be equally flippant, Haas replied: "I did not take it that way, sir."
Lambuth said the threat was issued on more than one occasion. Implicit with it, she said, was that she would lose her security clearance and thus her ability to work in Washington.
Salim and another specialist, John Spriggs, said they recalled being warned, but not in such stark terms. "I do not remember the word 'jail' and I never remember feeling threatened," Salim told the committee.
Lindsay said he couldn't recall making any such phone conference. Crabtree, who has since married and is known as Laura Callahan, said she remembered Lindsay's call but couldn't recall the conversation. Still, both insisted they never threatened anyone.
"Absolutely not," Lindsay told Waxman. "I didn't and I'm not aware of any threats being made by any government employee to any Northrop Grumman employee."
Under questioning from Waxman, none of the witnesses said they believed anyone in the administration intentionally misdirected the e-mails and none said they were asked to destroy any evidence.
Most of the workers said that they initially believed the administration wanted to keep the project under wraps until officials determined the scope of the problem. Lambuth was one who soon changed her mind.
"There was definitely a stalling, a delay," she testified. "Every time I asked what was going to happen on this, where we were going, I could get no answers."
Haas was dispatched to try to retrieve some of the "lost" messages, including some that might have been sent by Lewinsky. He said he found several from Lewinsky, including a few sent to Betty Currie, the president's secretary.
But he said he didn't read the messages and disputed Lambuth's recollection that he also found missing messages regarding fund-raising activities, campaign contributions or other potentially incriminating topics.
"I have never, ever intimated in any way shape or form that I knew any contents of any e-mails other than the two Monica Lewinsky documents," he said.
Weeks after the meeting, Hawkins, the project manager, sensed something was wrong and called Golas to his office, he told the panel. He asked Golas what she was working on. She got upset and said she couldn't answer.
When Hawkins told her such a response was grounds for dismissal, Golas told him she would rather be fired than jailed, Hawkins recalled.
The others were also "extremely nervous," Hawkins said.
Lambuth also refused to discuss the issue and was soon removed from the project, Hawkins said, though he insisted her refusal to talk was just one reason for her dismissal.
Hawkins then approached Lindsay and Crabtree, he said. He was worried that his employees were involved in a project outside the scope of their contract and one with political ramifications.
They responded by telling him not to intrude. "Everything was fine until you stepped in," Crabtree said, according to Hawkins.
Both Crabtree and Hawkins denied such an exchange. Crabtree said she couldn't recall any such meeting; Lindsay said he did meet with Hawkins but if their discussion grew heated it was only because Hawkins said the contractors would require more money to fix the e-mail flaw.
Hawkins' account was blunt. "They did try to cover up the fact that they had a computer glitch," he told the committee.
The mistake was fully corrected by November 1998. But Nolan has said that reconstructing backup tapes to retrieve and review the lost messages could take up to two years and cost as much as $3 million.
She was subpoenaed to testify before the committee, but her appearance was canceled. The White House issued a statement Thursday in which it declined to address workers' claims, but said it will complete an initial review of the e-mail matter next week.
Among the documents presented at the hearing was a five-page "Talking Points" memo, dated March 7, 2000, ostensibly instructing White House employees on how to respond to inquiries on the issue. Its author or recipients are unclear, but the memo says the White House officials delayed addressing the problem because they were more concerned with ensuring Y2K compliance and because the administrative office "did not have the funds to do it."
Another internal White House memo on Sept. 4, 1998 showed that computer officials were aware of problems "regarding OVP (Office of the Vice President) e-mail and records management." The memo laid out the problem in technical terms.
That the issue has already languished so long clearly frustrated some Republican members of the committee, which taped the hearing and planned to broadcast it on the Internet. "This has been known to you for over two years," an exasperated Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., told Lindsay.
Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, R-Ohio, said that Lindsay told him the e-mail reconstruction process would take at least 211 days a span that LaTourette noted ensures the e-mails will remain unknown until after the November election.
One of the workers, Spriggs, wasn't confident that the messages could ever be retrieved.
"You're saying today before this committee that you still aren't able to produce these e-mails?" Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., asked him.
"As of today," Spriggs replied, "we cannot."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 24, 2000
The White House is kind of caught in a bind on this one. They can't blame anything on technical glitches, the way they bad-mouthed y2k.
I wonder how they are going to squirm out of this.
-- Uncle Fred (email@example.com), March 24, 2000.
The current regime will evade this like all of the other issues, delays and lies and dis-information.
The only question is will congresscritters have enough spine to pull the zipper up while the "thingy" is hanging out? Not while the economy is going like gang busters.
-- Don Juan (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 24, 2000.