Special Reports
IBM, Darrell Issa, and millions of �lost� White house emails
By Jason Leopold
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Mar 27, 2008, 00:20

At a congressional committee hearing in February, Theresa Payton, the chief information officer at the White House Office of Administration, testified that White House emails sent and received between 2003 and 2005 fell into a virtual black hole when the Bush administration transitioned from Lotus Notes to the Microsoft Outlook email exchange -- a system that apparently was incapable of copying and archiving emails from Lotus.

For Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and accused the committee�s Democratic leadership of trying to embarrass President Bush, Payton�s succinct testimony solved the mystery surrounding the disappearance of perhaps millions of emails, many of which are said to coincide with high-profile political scandals, such as the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, and a Supreme Court ruling involving Vice President Dick Cheney�s energy task force documents.

Issa stated unequivocally that Payton�s testimony confirmed that the missing communications were not the result of deliberate malfeasance by the White House or negligence by the administration�s technology staff, but simply a computer glitch that ensued when the White House wanted to phase out an archaic email program.

In an exchange with Payton, Issa characterized Lotus notes as �wagon-wheel� technology.

�I wouldn't want to do business with somebody still using Lotus Notes or still using wooden wagon wheels,� Issa responded. �If I understand correctly, though, certainly I checked with the House of Representatives, we can no longer support it for members who want to stay on it.�

In the far corners of the Internet where people engage in online discussions about computer-related issues and computer-related issues only, Issa�s characterization of Lotus Notes as a Betamax type of technology was the equivalent of blasphemy. Moreover, to suggest that a switch from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook is the reason that the White House cannot locate millions of emails shows a level of incompetence by Payton, the White House�s chief information technology officer, according to several email technology experts.

Shortly after the February 26 committee hearing, several users of Lotus Notes contacted Ed Brill, an executive at IBM who specializes in the Lotus Notes software, concerned that the way Issa and Payton characterized Lotus Notes would be bad for business if they continued using the software.

In a blog maintained by Brill, the IBM executive wrote that calls from users and �partners� of Lotus Notes became so �dramatic� and created such a terrible public relations problem for the company that he was forced to call Congressman Issa�s office and demand that he amend his testimony about Lotus Notes.

�The sequence of events that followed that was quite dramatic for me, even after 20 years in the industry,� Brill wrote in a March 23 blog post. �I ended up on the phone with [Issa]. I have received a letter from the Congressman, which I hope to publish in the next week or so. The hearing testimony will also receive an amendment clarifying the intent of the commentary about Lotus Notes.�

In a brief interview, Brill said he was not authorized to speak on behalf of IBM, but said he found it �suspicious� that the White House had not recovered �old data� prior to the switch from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook. He added that he could not provide me with a copy of Issa�s letter because it contained confidential information about Lotus Notes software. However, Brill said that Issa agreed to amend his testimony to reflect that �Lotus Notes is a viable product� and that he erred when he characterized it as �wagon-wheel� technology.

Issa�s office did not return emails or phone calls for comment.

These turn of events in the yearlong case of missing White House emails underscores a deep disconnect that exists between computer experts who believe Bush administration officials have either been incompetent in archiving presidential records or have knowingly destroyed the data to cover up their actions, and officials like Issa and Payton who blame the implementation of new technology to explain the disappearance of the emails.

David Gewirtz, a former computer science professor who has written more than 600 articles about email and recently published a book on the email controversy, "Where Have All the Emails Gone,� believes administration officials including Payton have been playing fast and loose with the facts, particularly as it relates to the cost of recovering lost emails and the time it would take to retrieve it.

Gewirtz said Payton has misrepresented �the cost to manage data recovery by at least an order of magnitude� and has done so in an attempt to �dissuade Congress from pushing recovery.�

At the committee hearing in February, Payton pegged the total cost of recovery at about $15 million. In a sworn affidavit filed last week with U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola, Payton said the White House should not be forced to undertake a search for missing emails on individual computers and hard drives because it would be too time consuming and very expensive.

�That's just plain silly,� Gewirtz wrote in an article published in the February issue of Outlook Power Magazine.

�We're talking about mounting a tape or a disk and running a program,� Gewirtz wrote. �You can buy an IT guy for nearly a year for $50,000. But if it takes that IT guy a full year to run one restore, that's a dude you need to fire. Also from the Wildly Exaggerated Claims Department, Payton said it would cost $500,000 to buy the servers to do the restores. That's quite off the mark. I just checked with the Dell site. A nice PowerEdge server with 4GB of RAM and four one-terabyte hard drives is $4,377. A half a million bucks will buy you 114 of these servers.�

Additionally, Payton stated in response to a show cause order issued by Facciola that the White House had a �refresh policy� that resulted in the destruction of its hard drives every three years �in order to run updated software, reduce ongoing maintenance, and enhance security assurance.� As a result of this policy, Payton said, any emails that are missing would unlikely be found.

It is unclear when the �refresh policy� was implemented or who was responsible for drafting it. Neither Payton nor her aides responded to repeated requests for comment.

Susan Cooper, a spokesman for the National Archives, said in an interview that her agency does not have any power to force the White House to comply with the Presidential Records Act.

�One thing you have to remember, the key thing to remember, about presidential records is that it doesn�t become ours until the end of the administration,� Cooper said. �The National Archives does not have any say or legal input until the end of a president�s term. It�s up to the president to decide how he manages his records. However, federal records are a different story. We have input into that immediately. If we believe a federal agency is violating the Federal Records Act we will write a letter to the agency and ask for an explanation and if necessary we will refer the case to the Justice Department.�

Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, said the National Archives did write a letter to the White House last May when reports about the extent of the missing emails began to surface.

�Because the [Executive Office of the Presdient] email system contains records governed under both the Presidential Records Act and Federal Records Act, on May 6, 2007, the National Archives sent a standard letter to [Alan R. Swendiman] the director of the Office of Administration requesting a report on the allegations of unauthorized destruction of federal records,� Weinstein told the House Oversight Committee in sworn testimony last month. �While we have not received a written reply to the May 6 letter, we have been diligent in requesting an update on the status of the White House's review of these allegations and the possibility of missing federal and presidential emails, the White House has responded regularly that its review is still continuing. Furthermore, we have made our views clear, both to the White House and to this committee, that, in the event emails are determined to be missing, it would be the responsibility of the White House to locate and restore all the emails, probably from the backup tapes, and that such a project needs to begin as soon as possible.�

Cooper indicated that the National Archives has no intention of referring the matter to the Justice Department.

However, Terry Sweeney, a columnist with InformationWeek, believes that is where the case should end up.

In a column published Monday, Sweeney said Payton�s disclosure involving the destruction of hard drives �sounds improvised -- very lately improvised.�

�Normally, a reasonably sensible storage professional makes sure all necessary data was properly copied,� Sweeney wrote. �And normally new applications -- whether it's an e-mail server or the backup system for it are tested and re-tested before anything gets destroyed. But this situation isn't normal, and the story behind the story keeps changing, or getting added to, like one of those serial chain letters that clutter your inbox. Earlier on, I was willing to give the White House and [chief information officer] Theresa Payton the benefit of the doubt about this mess. My suspension of disbelief about this is officially suspended.�

Georgetown University�s National Security Archive, along with government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, sued the White House last year. The watchdog organizations allege Federal Records Act violations and have asked a federal court judge to order the Bush administration to install an effective archive system and retrieve the lost emails.

In a court document filed late Tuesday responding to the White House�s show cause order, the National Security Archive said that Facciola should order the White House to immediately make a �forensic copy� of individual hard drives or �there is a high likelihood that email data will be obliterated.�

�That the [Executive Office of the President] has destroyed hard drives from the relevant period, does not monitor or track its own hardware, and has no guidelines in place for the retention or preservation of other media devices further affirm the need for this court to . . . protect these sources of media that the [Executive Office of the President] itself has chosen to callously neglect,� the NSA�s response to the White House�s show cause order says.

In a sworn declaration accompanying the NSA�s court filing, Al Lakhani, managing director at Alvarez & Marsal Dispute Analysis and Forensic Services, said it is highly unlikely that �all emails sent or received between March 2003 and October 2005 are not on backup tapes� as Payton claims.

However, the emails can be recovered if copies of the hard drives are immediately made, Lakhani said, adding that it would cost between $50 and $250 and take up to 30 minutes, far lower than the $15 million Payton projected.

�Leaps in forensic copying and imaging technology have rendered nominal the cost and burden of preserving media of the type envisioned by the court,� the NSA�s federal court filing says.

Payton, however, is increasingly coming under fire for the rationale she has come up with to explain the loss of the emails.

CREW filed a federal court motion earlier this month asking that Payton be held in civil contempt for knowingly submitting false, misleading and incomplete testimony in an affidavit filed with a federal court on Jan. 15

In that affidavit, Payton said she was unaware whether e-mails were properly archived.

CREW said Payton�s responses in her affidavit are �false and appear designed to mislead the court into believing that both discovery and any additional interim relief are unnecessary.�

Jason Leopold is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit newsjunkiebook.com for a preview. He is also a two-time winner of the Project Censored award, most recently in 2007, for an investigative story related to Halliburton's work in Iran. He was recently named the recipient of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation�s Thomas Jefferson Award for a series of stories he wrote that exposed how soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been pressured to accept fundamentalist Christianity. Leopold is working on a new nonprofit online publication, expected to launch soon.

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