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White House e-mail problem may be resolved by September

Burton says White House explanation 'doesn't wash'

March 30, 2000
Web posted at: 5:45 p.m. EST (2245 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- White House Counsel Beth Nolan said Thursday that the computer problem afflicting the White House electronic messaging system could be resolved as early as September -- well before the fall elections.

"The White House has contracted with a private entity to restore the backup tapes," Nolan told the House Government Reform Committee. "Preliminary estimates will be in place, tested and ready to go in approximately 70 days."

"In other words, if the initial estimates hold up, we could have the backup tapes searched within six months," Nolan said, assuring the committee that the backup tapes were securely stored. Original White House estimates had established a time frame of up to two years to retrieve the errant e-mails.

Nolan's announcement came during a lengthy hearing Thursday on what is quickly becoming the most recent -- and most technically complex -- investigation of the White House by Congress, the Justice Department and the Office of Independent Counsel.

At issue is a technical problem that may have occurred as early as 1994 in the White House e-mail archiving system -- an automated record management system known as "ARMS" -- that resulted in the improper scanning, logging and archiving of incoming, external e-mails to nearly 500 White House personnel, many of them high-ranking.

Nolan
White House Counsel Beth Nolan  

Those e-mails -- said to number in the thousands -- subsequently may not have been handed over in response to subpoenas issued in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the campaign finance, FBI files and White House travel office investigations.

Thursday's hearing came one week after outside contract employees testified that when the problem was first discovered in June of 1998, they were advised not to disclose it to anyone, and some said they were threatened by White House staff with losing their jobs or even jail time.

Nolan said that "to the best of (her) knowledge" she has found "no evidence" that anyone in the Executive Office of the President "attempted to withhold or hide responsive e-mail records," and that no one in either her office nor the White House Office "was advised of allegations of threats surrounding this matter."

The president was informed of the problem "only in the last month," Nolan said. His response was that he "wanted to make sure that we had produced everything we could produce and that we were looking into what to do."

"How do we reconcile that? The only thing we can do is look at who has the motivation to tell the truth, and who has the motivation not to," said Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Indiana), on Thursday.

"When did the White House Counsel's office find out about this mess, and what did they do about it?" Burton queried Thursday, after noting that the White House has a "track record on subpoena compliance that's not good."

"Deliberate concealment would be an obstruction of justice," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California), the ranking member on the committee. "But until we know the facts, we should be careful about making these kind of allegations."

"Everyone agrees that they were technical glitches," Waxman added.

Subpoenas imminent

The White House can expect to receive several subpoenas over the coming days from the committee as part of the ongoing investigation of e-mail problem.

Burton
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton  

When Nolan sought to clarify that a computer disk received by the White House two weeks ago contained duplicate e-mails found as the result of a search by a Northop Grumman employee, Burton said he would subpoena both the "zip" disk that contained the files, as well as the computer hard drive of the employee who had turned it over to the White House, Robert Haas.

Haas testified last week that he was asked to conduct a search in June 1998 to ensure that no e-mail messages pertaining to Monica Lewinsky had been missed. Haas said he found messages sent between Lewinsky and her friend Ashley Raines, which the White House said were duplicates of those already sent to investigators.

"The zip disk referenced was simply a copy of the file maintained on Mr. Haas' computer," Nolan said. "The data on the disk was neither newly discovered nor previously undisclosed."

"'Missing e-mails' is a little misleading," Nolan continues, in a reference to recent news accounts, "because while certain e-mails may not have been archived, they may still have been produced.

"For somebody over at the White House to say they were duplicates still doesn't straighten it out," Burton said. " Why not send those duplicates over to the Independent Counsel's office?"

"There are a number of ways that e-mail could have been produced," Nolan said, "because they had been forwarded, because someone had retained a hard copy."

"We don't want someone at the White House to tell us they were duplicates, we want those hard copies so we can determine whether they are duplicates," Burton said. "There's some question among some people on whether or not we've been getting the straight scoop."

Nolan, who joined the White House in September 1999, sought to clarify that while the problem was discovered almost two years ago, the White House Counsel's office "was not aware of the scope of these errors.

"They knew about a possible problem, but not the problems that we are talking about now," she said.

Former White House Counsel Charles Ruff, who defended the president during the Senate impeachment trial last year, had been informed that there was some kind of problem with an e-mail search, Nolan explained, and that a subsequent search was conducted to see if e-mails had been missed.

"Ruff discussed it with (White House administrator) Mark Lindsay, determined it was a particular e-mail server problem, ran a search, found duplicates and determined that if there had been a problem it had been fixed."

"They did not know of any ongoing, larger e-mail problem," Nolan said.

"Your position, Miss Nolan, does not make any sense," Burton said. "White House lawyers knew there was a problem. The Office of Administration knew there was a problem. The Department of Justice knew there was a problem. It strains credibility to say that Mr. Ruff thought the problem was resolved."

Burton indicated that subpoenas also would be issued to Ruff and White House attorney Michelle Peterson.

"We'll get Mr. Ruff in here to tell us what he knew or should have known," said Rep. Bob Barr (R-Georgia).

 
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