With White House e-mail, it's click now, repent later

In 1993, in one of the more famous examples of flame e-mails, Linda Tripp sent out a blistering message, calling senior members of her White House office "the three stooges."

It's hard to imagine that happening in today's White House, where "no trail, no trouble" is the unspoken mantra. Such caution prevails that one staffer used erasable magic markers during a strategy session, rather than risk a subpeona.

White House staff chose their words carefully long before the advent of e-mail. And the Watergate tapes proved that conversations don't have to be written to be dangerous. But the point-and-click missives have added a new dimension to White House communication - one with implications ranging from front-page embarrassments to, perhaps, Al Gore's political future.

As Congress and the Justice Department investigate the White House for a potential cover-up of perhaps 250,000 missing e-mails, many of which could have escaped subpoena dragnets, the probes reveal a unique, cautious culture of messaging at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

People outside the wrought-iron gates of the presidential compound might view e-mail as a private, informal way to talk. But the knowledge that everything they write could be scrutinized by both the media and investigators, has inspired an attitude of apprehension about e-mailing, especially among the president's legal advisers.

"E-mails and anything else written was not only discouraged, people were living in fear that the wrong e-mail would lead to a prosecution, or at least several hundred thousands dollars of legal fees," says former counsel Lanny Davis.

In fact, whenever a White House staffer clicks "send," a message reminds them that a copy of their missive is being sent to records management.

When it comes to saving e-mails, the White House is held to a higher standard than the private sector, and even Congress.

Companies that have a policy of saving e-mails usually do so only for three to six months, according to records-management consultants. Many companies consider them the same as phone calls, and don't archive them unless they are equal in weight to a written communication.

But the White House is different. It saves its records for posterity. After President Clinton vacates his office next January, at least 30 million stored e-mails will be deposited with the National Archives, an unfathomable mountain of data ranging from "how about lunch?" to speech drafts, to perhaps more juicy communications.

In the federal government, "retention of records tends to be driven by ... the need to inform a free society and the need to retain information of historical consequence. For most businesses, neither of those issues are on the radar screen," says Patrick Cunningham of Hewitt Associates, a management consulting firm in Lincolnshire, Ill. "Do we need to see Monica Lewinsky's e-mail messages to various Executive Office persona? Certainly, because they are material to an historical event - the impeachment of the president...."

On Capitol Hill, e-mail archiving is at the discretion of the lawmaker. Ironically, the office of Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana, who last week grilled White House counsel about the missing e-mails, stores its electronic messages for a mere week, then overrides them with new work.

The White House, on the other hand, installed an e-mail archiving system in July 1994, after a court ruled that electronic records must be preserved in the same way as federal records. It was such a novel concept at the time that it had to be custom-built.

Another former administration official says he used to hold back on sending something electronically because e-mails can be so easily copied.

He cited an example of a White House directive electronically leaked to the media in 1998. It said certain words related to the first lady's pet millennium project were off limits to speechwriters, causing an employee to jokingly wonder if staffers could even say "21st century" in conversation.

But he rejects the assumption that history is being lost in this antidocumenting atmosphere. According to the former official, a great deal still gets zapped around - including budget-related items, speech drafts, and the president's schedule.

And because e-mails, even in the White House, so often mimic phone calls, they add a new dimension to White House archival history. "They're a treasure trove."

But they're also a challenge for the White House tech team. For example, until last month, about a third of the e-mail accounts in the vice president's office weren't being captured by the archiving system, White House counsel Beth Nolan testified.

That includes the account of the technologically savvy vice president. Unlike the president and first lady, who don't even have personal e-mail accounts, Mr. Gore is a frequent user. In the past, he's been under investigation for campaign-finance abuse, and potentially new, damaging material could surface as White House contractors attempt to restore his e-mails to an electronically searchable format.

"If, as people expect, the retrieval process is finished sometime in mid- or late-summer, than the content of those e-mails could potentially be a very significant issue during the fall election," says Viet Dinh, a law professor at Georgetown University and a former attorney with the Senate Whitewater Committee.

According to counsel Nolan, e-mails coming into the White House went missing from August 1996 through August 1998. The cause was capital letters. During computer maintenance, more than 500 e-mail accounts were sent to MAIL2 (instead of Mail2), making it impossible for the archiving system to recognize e-mails sent to those accounts. In another archiving snafu, e-mails sent to staffers whose first name started with 'D' went astray.

The counsel's office points out that some of the "missing" e-mails did make it to investigators because they showed up on searches of individual computers or were saved in internally forwarded messages. And they are now spending at least $3 million for contractors to restore all the missing e-mails from backup tapes.

But as so often is the case, the crime, if there is one, lurks not in the mistake itself, but in its possible coverup. Two White House computer contractors say they were threatened by administration supervisors in June 1998 with losing their jobs and going to jail if they discussed the recently discovered errors with even their spouses.

Other contractors at the meeting do not recall the threats of jail, and officials say they never issued such threats.

Meanwhile, Representative Burton said last week that he would hold more hearings on why the computer glitches, which were discovered during the height of the Lewinsky matter, weren't immediately reported to investigators.

"There's something here that's not washing," Burton said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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