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Firm won't take hit for Project X fiasco

Posted By Paul Sperry On 04/04/2000 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled

WASHINGTON — The private contractor that previously handled e-mail
operations for the White House hotly disputes White House claims it
caused a computer “error” that led to a two-year hole in records of
e-mail sent to West Wing officials.

In fact, White House staffers may be to blame, company officials
asserted in interviews with WorldNetDaily.com.

The former contractor, Planning Research Corp., had a lead role in
designing, building and maintaining the e-mail and archiving systems in
the White House before Northrop Grumman took over the contract in 1997.

In 1996, the White House converted to a server-based system. That’s
when White House officials say the “glitch” occurred on a key e-mail
server used by top West Wing officials, including President Clinton.

But the contractor says it did not have “exclusive control over any
servers” in the White House.

“There were at least 50 government IT (information technology)
employees who touched the servers — people who had access rights,” said
Tim Long, vice president of strategic communications and market
development for McLean, Va.-based Litton PRC Inc. Litton Industries
took over PRC in 1996.

So “we can’t say it was us” that caused the problem, Long added.

An official in the White House’s Information Systems and Technology
office confirmed that many White House staffers have access to the
servers. She also said that security keeps a list of those White House
employees with access, along with their passcodes.

Who’s on the list? The White House won’t say, though one former
official said it includes “political appointees.”

Also, the PRC manager in charge of the White House contract back then
says he doesn’t recall any error reports that signaled that the
archiving system wasn’t picking up data off the one server. Yet the
system may have been missing thousands of pieces of e-mail a day.

The manager, who was in charge of 134 workers, met each morning with
his programmers and White House officials to plan projects and read any
error reports.

“If there was that kind of report, it would have been something I
would have heard about,” said the manager, who wished to go unnamed.
“That would have been a serious error. That would have gotten enough
attention to where that certainly would have made it to my level.”

In June 1998, Northrop Grumman technicians discovered that the White
House’s Automated Records Management System, or ARMS, wasn’t copying and
storing Internet messages sent to the so-called “Mail2″ server.

Federal records law requires the White House to archive e-mail so
that it can be easily searched for compliance with Freedom of
Information Act requests and subpoenas. Several investigative bodies
have subpoenaed White House e-mail relevant to scandals ranging from the
Monica Lewinsky cover-up to Filegate to Chinagate.

The e-mail records “bleeding” started in August 1996 and didn’t stop
until Nov. 20, 1998. High-level White House officials ordered the
Northrop Grumman contractors to keep the problem, affecting 526 staffers
in the Executive Office of the President, top secret. Three workers said
they were threatened with jail if they told even their spouses or bosses
about “Project X.”

The White House blames the problem on an “entirely unintentional”
human error caused by a computer programmer employed by the “previous
contractor.”

Laura Crabtree Callahan, the ex-White House official who worked with
PRC contractors on the 1996 project to convert e-mail users to IBM’s
Lotus Notes program, spared little criticism for the former contractor
in testimony before the House Government Reform Committee last month.

“We’ve had numerous problems with the e-mail system. It was very
poorly constructed and very poorly designed by a contractor prior to
Northrop Grumman,” she said. “So as a result, anomalies were fairly
common.”

But Long says that’s unfair. In 1996, White House officials were
pushing computer projects through at such a fast pace that it’s not
clear who was responsible for what.

“It was grab this person, grab that person,” he said. “A government
clone (to one of the program managers) could have tapped one of our PRC
programmers without us even knowing it.”

“The political managers were driving IST to do this
quick-quick-quick,” Long added. “A lot of stuff was done hastily. I’m
not sure it was chaos, but it was very ad hoc.”

The PRC program manager said Callahan, who joined the White House on
Sept. 30, 1996, was “very involved” in the Lotus Notes project.

“In fact, she shared an office with my own people,” he said. “So some
of my people would have had daily contact with her.”

He claims Callahan could easily have tapped a programmer to jump on
the server and key in code. Callahan did not return calls to her Labor
Department office, where she now heads up IT for the agency.

According to a 1999 internal White House memo obtained by
WorldNetDaily, a PRC programmer designed the Lotus Notes program to aid
in “migrating” White House users
to the new system.

But the memo also says a White House aide, who worked in the Office
of Administration, assisted the PRC programmer on the project.

How did the “glitch” happen?

White House Counsel Beth Nolan last month explained that, during the
1996 conversion to Lotus Notes, “some of the users were apparently
mistakenly coded by computer technicians as being on ‘MAIL2,’ using all
upper-case letters, instead of ‘Mail2.’ ”

She added: “The ARMS scanning process is case sensitive.”

But PRC officials, as well as former White House officials, are
skeptical of the explanation.

1,578 bad keystrokes?

For starters, ARMS was not likely case sensitive.

“I don’t remember anything like that,” the program manager said.

Long agreed: “It’s very rare that any software would not look for
either case.”

And if it were case sensitive, why could the ARMS still read the
Mail2 server’s outgoing mail?

In creating e-mail accounts for Mail2, the White House says the
programmers “hand-keyed” in the ID codes.

That’s odd. According to a June 1998 memo formulated by Northrop
Grumman technicians, ID codes are normally created for the Lotus Notes
e-mail servers using an
automated process consisting of a series of “pull-down menus.”

“However, when the user IDs were created for Mail2, it appears that
the automated procedure was not used, and instead information was
hand-keyed into the system,” the memo states. “The construct of the
spelling for the Mail2 server ID was entered in all upper case letters
(i.e. MAIL2).”

Assuming the mistake was a “technical error … the sole result of
human mistakes and entirely unintentional,” as the White House’s Nolan
stressed, the number of errant keystrokes would total an eye-popping
1,578 (526 users x 3 bad keystrokes — “A,” “I” and “L”).

Typically, programmers test such code changes. If they don’t get an
“error” log, they put the code into production. How could they miss that
many errors?

No self-respecting programmer would allow anything close to that many
mistakes, experts say — and surely not one working for the White House,
where computer contractors bill as much as $100 an hour.

And not one working on, of all the servers, the one used by the
president and his top aides.

And not one, for that matter, working for PRC, which is considered
among the top federal contractors, or “Beltway bandits,” as they’re
known in Washington.

Until 1996, PRC had held the White House computer contract for 22
years, spanning five presidents. Almost all of PRC’s business is still
with Uncle Sam.

Which raises another question: If PRC made that big of a boo-boo, why
would the Clinton administration continue to contract with the company?

The White House had no comment. According to spokesman Mark Kitchens,
the White House is issuing only general statements about Project X and
won’t answer specific
questions.

“I’m suspicious that this mistake ever happened the way they say,”
said a former White House official. “There would have certainly been
value in having this server not be properly records-managed. Because
when they found out about the problem, there was value in letting it
continue for six months.”

Curious confluence

Callahan’s Sept. 30, 1996, promotion to the White House from a
lower-paying government job in Pittsburgh is marked by a curious
confluence of events.

  • The next month, PRC’s contract was terminated, although many
    PRC technicians — including Sandi Golas, Bob Haas and John Spriggs –
    stayed on to help Northrop Grumman make the transition. (The three now
    work for Northrop Grumman in the White House. They testified, somewhat
    reluctantly, about the e-mail scandal in last month’s House hearings.)

  • Callahan replaced veteran White House computer manager Sheryl
    Hall, who says she was demoted for speaking out against the White House
    political appointees using government resources to build the first
    lady’s WHODB donor database. Hall was heavily involved in the Lotus
    Notes e-mail project at the time. She has since become a whistle-blower
    and a plaintiff in Judicial Watch’s
    Filegate suit against White House officials.

  • At the end of September 1996, White House official Jim Wright,
    branch chief of IST’s Data Center, came back to work after a two-week
    leave of absence for “stress,” a former colleague says — only to find
    out that Callahan had taken over his old Lotus Notes project. He was
    soon at odds with Callahan over her handling of the e-mail project, the
    colleague says.

  • On Oct. 17, 1996, the new server-based Lotus Notes e-mail system
    first went on line — with its now-famously flawed Mail2 server.

  • At the same time — just weeks away from the November 1996
    presidential election — news broke of Clinton-Gore fund-raiser John
    Huang’s shady (now illegal) dealings. Secret meetings between Clinton
    and Huang’s Beijing-tied boss, James Riady, were also revealed.

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