The Case of Missing White House E-mail

WASHINGTON (03/24/2000) - A case-sensitive glitch allowed hundreds of thousands of incoming U.S. White House e-mail messages to slip through undetected, leaving the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice 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.

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