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White House officials acknowledge e-mail glitch secrecy, say no threats were made

Justice Department opens criminal investigation

March 23, 2000
Web posted at: 7:17 p.m. EST (2417 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- White House officials acknowledged Thursday they asked contract staffers not to discuss computer problems that caused thousands of e-mail messages to escape the reach of a congressional subpoena, but rejected claims that those staffers had been threatened.

The statements came Thursday afternoon at a House Government Reform Committee hearing on the controversy. Earlier in the day, three Northrop Grumman contract employees, charged with operating the e-mail system, said White House officials Mark Lindsay and Laura Callahan had threatened to have them jailed if the problem was disclosed -- claims the two officials vehemently denied.

All of the contract employees who testified before the panel on Thursday said the problem was technical in nature, but the White House nonetheless wanted to keep it secret.

"It's not something that I did. It's not something that I condone and it's not something that I would ever permit if it came to my knowledge," said Lindsay, an assistant to the president and director of White House management and administration, of the claimed threats.

The problem in the automated record management system, known as ARMS, resulted in the improper scanning, logging and archiving of incoming, external e-mails to nearly 500 White House personnel -- many of them high-ranking.

Burton
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton  

Those e-mails -- said to number in the thousands -- subsequently were not handed over in response to subpoenas by Congress, the Office of Independent Counsel or the Justice Department.

Lindsay, along with Laura Callahan -- a career civil servant who at the time the problem surfaced served as the White House webmaster -- testified before the panel that they were simply following standard White House operating procedures when they instructed the Northrop Grumman team to remain quiet on the issue while the problem was diagnosed and repaired.

When asked why some on the team -- including Robert Haas, a systems administrator who has since filed a lawsuit in the matter -- recalled having been threatened during a meeting on the issue, Callahan said: "He may be either having a bad recollection or having an overactive imagination with regard to having the threat being made to him."

At the time the e-mail problem was discovered, June 1998, Lindsay was responsible for ensuring the White House operating systems were Y2K compliant.

"I did say that this was a matter that needed to be kept in bounds with those people who needed the information to repair the system," he added, noting that he didn't want to hear of any "water cooler talk" while the White House was under investigation for several matters, including alleged campaign finance improprieties and the Monica Lewinsky affair.

The problem was one of many with the e-mail system and initially was not given priority because of the Y2K compliance testing, he said.

Laura Callahan
Laura Callahan  

Callahan said she became alarmed when, shortly after the problem was discovered, Northrop Grumman employee Betty Lambuth, a manager on the project who no longer works at the White House, came to her with an e-mail exchange between former intern Monica Lewinsky and another woman, Ashley Raines.

"I was very concerned why all of a sudden we had a specific e-mail being brought to my attention when we hadn't even determined the size and scope of the problem," Callahan said. Lambuth said that the e-mail had been found by Haas, the Northrop Grumman systems administrator who later filed the lawsuit. At the time, the team was in a "diagnostic mode," Callahan said.

"Whether e-mails were lost or not was a technical conclusion that had not been reached yet. What I asked be done was to conduct an investigation to determine the nature of the problem," Lindsay said.

As a result, it was decided a team meeting should be held to walk through the White House standard operating procedures. "There were already people in the hallway starting to discuss this," said Callahan. "And Mr. Lindsay said we needed to be careful because it was sensitive."

Congressional Republicans, Justice Department on alert

"The big deal is not that a computer technician made a mistake," said House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton (R-Indiana) earlier in the hearing. "The big deal is how the White House reacted to it."

Although Burton alleged the Justice Department has remained uninterested in the matter, CNN learned from law enforcement sources Thursday that the department's Campaign Finance Task Force is conducting a criminal investigation into the controversy.

Betty Lambuth
Betty Lambuth  

The technical problem was not made public until last month, when Haas accused White House staff of a coverup in a lawsuit filed by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch.

As part of that lawsuit and a subsequent investigation by Burton's committee, Haas claimed he had been threatened with jail if he revealed the existence of the problem. "I was told there would be a jail cell with my name on it," he said.

"I was told by a couple of different people that we were not to talk to anyone," said Lambuth.

"We were not to talk to our spouses other than those of us who already knew about this particular project. They did tell me that if any of us did talk about this that my staff would be fired, would be arrested and would go to jail," she said.

Some of them felt so threatened by their initial meeting with Callahan and Lindsay that they requested legal counsel, according to Steven Hawkins, the Northrop Grumman program manager.

The technical problem was to be kept so secret that it came to be known as "Project X," and the team, led by Lambuth, held a series of furtive technical meetings at a nearby Starbucks coffee house and Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, to keep the issue confidential.

Lambuth, who was taken off the project in July 1998, has provided an affidavit to Burton's committee that states some of the e-mails contained information regarding various matters under investigation either by Congress or the Justice Department, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation background files controversy, Lewinsky, trade mission information and campaign finance matters.

But Haas said that while he was instructed to conduct a search for e-mails by or about Lewinsky in June 1998, he had not seen e-mails on any other issue. "I found that and I've done no other searches," he said.

The White House has turned over more than 7,000 pieces of e-mail in response to subpoenas in those matters. And most of those who testified Thursday said they did not believe the problem was actually caused by the White House, nor did the White House tell them to destroy any e-mails.

Waxman
Rep. Henry Waxman  

"We didn't know enough about what was going on to be able to say that the White House was obstructing anything," said John Spriggs, a Northrop Grumman senior engineer for electronic mail.

During a lengthy question-and-answer session, the technical team was asked to estimate the number of e-mails that may have been missed in subpoena requests, and whether White House staff could have deleted e-mails before they could be scanned into the archival system.

"We should do our best to clarify the facts," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California), the ranking Democrat on the committee. "We have already learned that no one in the Clinton Administration suggested that e-mails be excluded from the ARMS system.

"It's pretty clear that if we didn't find out about this problem independently we were never going to be told by the White House," Burton said.

In a letter to Burton, White House Counsel Beth Nolan said the e-mails exist on computer back up tapes, but that it would cost between $1 million and $3 million and take as long as two years to recover the lost documents, which could total over 100,000 in number.

Meanwhile, in a legal filing in the Judicial Watch lawsuit, the Justice Department said Thursday, "as a result of these allegations, the (campaign finance) task force has begun an investigation into whether subpoenas issued to (the Executive Office of the President) by the task force were fully complied with, and whether persons were threatened with retaliation in order to prevent the existence of the affected e-mails from becoming known to the task force."

White House officials say Justice Department officials have asked about the matter, but could not confirm they had been formally notified of a criminal investigation. The White House says the contents of the e-mails are not known.

CNN's Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.

 
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