The case of missing White House e-mail

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.


  • Workforce
    online collaboration (elenabsl/

    Federal employee job satisfaction climbed during pandemic

    The survey documents the rapid change to teleworking postures in government under the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Workforce
    By Mark Van Scyoc Royalty-free stock photo ID: 285175268

    OPM nominee plans focus on telework, IT, retirement

    Kiran Ahuja, a veteran of the Office of Personnel Management, told lawmakers that she thinks that the lack of consistent leadership in the top position at OPM has taken a toll on the ability of the agency to complete longer term IT modernization projects.

Stay Connected