You've Lost Mail: The White House Email Saga
Independent Counsel Robert Ray, the Justice Department and Congress are all
investigating why the White House, after discovering a computer error in 1998
that stopped emails from being properly archived, neither retrieved the missing
messages immediately nor turned over the emails required by subpoena. The Independent
Counsel, Justice, and Congress are trying to determine if the missing emails
were part of an effort to obstruct official investigations including Whitewater,
impeachment, and political fund-raising. The White House denies any such unlawful
In mid-February of this year, ex-chief of White House computer operations Sheryl
Hall came forward with allegations that Clinton administration officials were
involved in an email cover-up. Hall, who now works at the Treasury Department,
alleged that email messages written between August 1996 and November 1998 were
intentionally made unavailable to both the Justice Department and congressional
Hall charged that approximately 100,000 messages sent to or by some 500 top
White House aides, initially misplaced mistakenly by a computer glitch, were
inappropriately labeled classified and were not turned over to the Justice Department.
(House Governmental Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Burton quotes the
figure of un-archived emails at about 250,000. The exact number remains unknown.)
The story behind the cover-up, as told by Hall, touches on some of the most
explosive issues connected to digital documents and their discovery. In May
1998, a contractor, Betty Lambuth, informed White House officials that a computer
glitch prevented some 100,000 emails from being processed through the Automated
Records Management System ("ARMS"). Ironically, this system's specific purpose
was to enable the White House to store all email correspondence in one central
place and, therefore, to facilitate the White House's ability to respond to
document subpoenas; by storing all email centrally, comprehensive word searches
could easily be done to identify all manner of communications relating to Monica
Lewinsky, Filegate, campaign finance, &c. Instead of admitting the mistake and
releasing the emails, the White House, according to Hall, labeled the messages
classified and kept them from the Justice Department.
In early March 2000, shortly after Hall's allegations were made public, Lambuth
- the contractor who first identified the computer glitch - claimed that when
she discovered the glitch and told White House counsel, she was threatened with
jail if she told anyone else about it. Her discovery, it will be recalled, came
in May 1998 -- during the midst of the Lewinsky investigation. Lambuth and a
few assistants who had a hand in discovering the glitch were allegedly told
not to tell their private-sector boss and were left to discuss "Project X" in
parks and Starbucks cafes.
Both Hall and Lambuth are represented by the conservative legal/ethical watch-dog
group Judicial Watch, which has dozens of suits pending against various agencies
of the federal government (including the "Filegate" litigation, Alexander et.
al. v. FBI et al., and Civil Action No. 96-2123, of which this email case is
a part). Though the "missing" emails allegedly contain references to a number
of White House scandals, Judicial Watch has apparently used the Hall and Lambuth
declarations to forestall the Independent Counsel from issuing a report on Filegate,
In a recent declaration, Hall alleged that the White House plans to destroy
archival cartridge tapes and reformat the hard drives of departing White House
staffers. On March 10, the U.S. District Judge in the above-captioned matter
ordered the Justice Department attorney representing the White House to ensure
that no hard drives were reformatted or cartridges destroyed.
The White House has called the glitch "unintentional" and blamed it on "human
error," attributing the problem to a "disconnect" between technicians and lawyers
who apparently did not realize that the computer mistake might have an effect
on the pending subpoena requests.
In a letter sent last month to House Governmental Oversight Committee Chairman
Rep. Dan Burton, White House counsel further explained that it might take upwards
of $3 million and as long as two years to recover all the emails. (Counsel has
since decided that recovering the emails will take only about 6 months.) The
letter also explained that the initial programming glitch resulted from miscoding
accounts "MAIL2" instead of "Mail2" and mistakenly dropping accounts for people
whose last names begin with "D"-- which went unnoticed because "J" accounts
were filed twice (which leaves one to wonder who the top aides with last names
of "D" were/are).
In the latest development, on Tuesday May 2, 2000, the White House dropped a
proposed executive privilege claim and turned over White House lawyers' handwritten
notes to Congress. The notes could potentially have been covered by executive
privilege, as they involved discussions about the missing email between the
White House and computer experts.
The next layer to peel away, of course, would be to put all this in context.
Some questions include the following:
(1) What does it mean that 500 top White House aides' files were miscoded? How
many White House employees had email accounts at the time?
(2) Is the real issue here programming error or White House trickery?
(3) How can we come up with meaningful standards regarding the maintenance and
preservation of electronic data? Is the White House plan to destroy ex-aides'
hard drives necessary or indefensible?
(4) What kind of built-in oversight exists in record-keeping programs that could
take these issues out of the realm of human choice and simply automate them?
(5) Are there any essential differences between the legal and ethical issues
regarding discovery, document preservation, shredding, &c, in the largely pre-electronic
and present ages?