The case of missing White House e-mail
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Mar 23, 2000
A case-sensitive glitch allowed hundreds of thousands of incoming White
House e-mail messages to slip through undetected, leaving Congress and the
Justice Department without e-mail evidence in matters related to campaign
finance, "Filegate" and the Monica Lewinsky sex-and-perjury scandal.
Employees from Northrop Grumman Corp., the main computer contractor at the
Executive Office of the President (EOP), explained the problem in testimony
Thursday before the House Government Reform Committee.
Because of a glitch in an EOP server, incoming e-mail messages from the
Internet went undetected by the Automated Records Management System, which
searches text in response to subpoenas and other inquiries. Internal messages
were not affected by the failed interchange.
The problem was discovered in June 1998 by Yiman Salim and Robert Haas,
members of Northrop's Lotus Development Corp. Notes group. They found it
to be specific to the Mail2 server, used by 500 people, most of whom work
for the White House.
The glitch originated two years earlier when the contractor before Northrop
built the server with the name Mail2 having only the uppercase "M." But
accounts on the server were assigned the name MAIL2 in all capital letters.
When the case-sensitive ARMS scanner performed a comparison of names, it
failed, leaving all those accounts unscanned, Salim said.
Congress eventually subpoenaed the unscanned records when it was determined
that they might contain information on White House scandals. In fact, e-mail
messages from Lewinsky to a friend at the EOP eventually were discovered
by a Northrop employee and turned over to White House officials.
John Spriggs, Northrop's senior engineer for electronic mail, said the e-mail
messages in question still have not been recovered. "The technical issues
themselves continue to be knotty, difficult problems," he said. "We still
can't produce the [e-mail messages]."
Salim and Spriggs corrected Mail2's case-sensitive problem in November 1998,
but Salim discovered another records management glitch in April 1999: E-mail
messages to people whose first name began with "D" were not being properly
scanned by ARMS. That problem, which was corrected June 1, 1999, affected
all the Lotus Notes mail servers, not just Mail2, Salim said.
In addition to trying to acquire the subpoenaed records, the House committee
also is trying to determine if the Northrop employees were threatened by
White House employees with jail time and a loss of their jobs if they told
anyone about the problem.
Several employees testified that they felt threatened and, at the very least,
were told to keep the matter private, even from their spouses, until it
could be properly handled.
A Senate panel is conducting its own inquiry.