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Are e-mail tapes safe?
Posted By Paul Sperry On 04/13/2000 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled
WASHINGTON – Contradicting recent White House claims, a former White
House computer contractor says that back-up tapes of White House e-mail
are routinely stored at a site outside the White House complex.
The White House has assured Congress that all the tapes are in the
custody of the White House security office.
It’s not clear if there are two sets of the tapes, one stored in the
White House complex and another stored at an offsite facility. Nor is it
clear if the tapes stored offsite include files of unsearched White
House e-mail under subpoena.
Asked about it, White House Security Officer Charles C. Easley asserted
that the relevant tapes are stored in the New Executive Office Building
next to the White House.
“I have the tapes in a secure room (in the NEOB), but not in my office,”
Easley told WorldNetDaily. He would not say if any were stored offsite.
But the former White House computer contractor, who wished to go
unnamed, told WorldNetDaily that White House officials routinely removed
e-mail back-up tapes from the White House grounds, although he could not
name the site where they were stored.
“They took the tapes and put them in a vault somewhere,” said the
source, whose company, Planning Research Corp., handled the White House
computer contract before Northrop Grumman took over operations
completely in 1997.
In 1998, Northrop Grumman contractors, including a few who had
previously worked for PRC, found what amounted to a 28-month gap in
archives of e-mail and attached documents coming mainly into the West
Wing (outgoing messages and internal White House messages apparently
were archived). The gap stretches from 1996 to 1998.
The e-mails — which number close to 1 million – have been under
subpoena in several investigations of White House scandals.
As a standard operating procedure, however, White House computer
specialists each night made emergency back-up tapes of the files, which
reside on an e-mail server used by President Clinton and his top aides,
including his chief of staff.
An automated White House archiving system failed to record the key
server during the two-year period. The White House blames a “programming
error” for the omitted e-mail.
There are at least 3,400 back-up tapes of that White House server
(labeled “Mail2″), according to White House Counsel Beth Nolan.
In addition, Nolan says there are “approximately” 625 back-up tapes of a
separate server used by Vice President Al Gore and more than 20 of his
Because of another “glitch,” to this day none of Gore’s office’s
in-coming e-mail have been archived by the Automated Records Management
System, or ARMS, which was set up in 1994 by court mandate. Messages
written by Gore and his staff also may not have been recorded in a
(In-coming e-mail for 200 user accounts beginning with the first letter
“D” — including 42 in the White House Office — also went uncollected
from November 1998 to May 1999. Reason: another “error.” It’s not clear
if these files are on back-up tapes too.)
The White House has hired two private contractors to retrieve the e-mail
from the back-up tapes. One of them employs former White House
officials, as WorldNetDaily first reported last week. Nolan claims the
job will take at least six months.
The PRC contractor’s comments confirm an earlier magazine report that
the back-up tapes are stored outside the White House complex.
In a recent column, Insight’s Paul Rodriguez reported that the tapes are
“secretly housed” in a facility located somewhere in Greenbelt, Md.,
according to “Insight’s sources.” The article stated that the White
House has denied the existence of such offsite records.
Are the tapes safe?
Nolan has promised Congress that “the back-up tapes of e-mail are
The tapes, which have a short shelf life of about two years before they
disintegrate, were entrusted to Easley on March 16.
In an April 3 federal court affidavit, Easley says he stored the back-up
tapes of Gore’s office e-mail in Room SB-234 of the NEOB, “behind two
doors secured by mechanical cypher locks.”
He says he changed the combination on the lock to the inner door of the
room and added a high-security deadbolt.
What’s more, “the deadbolt has been locked with a high-security padlock
to which only I have the key,” Easley said, “so that only I and those I
authorize are permitted entry to the area.”
He did not say who he’s authorized to go into the room. But if it’s the
same climate-controlled room where several servers are kept, it’s an
area that many White House officials, besides computer programmers, have
access to, notes the former PRC contractor.
Easley also failed to say where he’s keeping the 3,400 back-up tapes of
unarchived West Wing e-mail for that critical 1996 to 1998 period, which
covers the Chinagate fund-raising scandal, Filegate and the Monica
Lewinsky perjury and obstruction-of-justice probe.
In the past, these tapes have been stored in the NEOB basement and
offsite, and have been in the custody of the Executive Office of the
President’s “server group.”
If Easley is serious about maintaining a chain of custody over the
evidence, he’s already flunked one test.
Besides the tapes, he also has — or had — custody of an
expanded-storage “Zip” disk that holds a “sample search” of some 1,000
e-mails from Monica Lewinsky to White House aides.
Northrop Grumman technician Robert Haas made the search in 1998 and
later copied the files to the disk. Haas’ boss turned the disk over to
Easley on March 17.
On March 23, Easley let White House lawyers open the disk, which is
under subpoena, because they told him they needed to “verify” its
contents (even though the White House has maintained it already knew
what was in the Lewinsky files, arguing they were “duplicative” of
documents already turned over to investigators and therefore not worthy
of being released).
Easley that day let White House officials print out 15 Lewinsky e-mails,
including attachments. After they stopped, Easley says he “personally
returned” the Zip disk to Room SB-234.
Then on March 29, Easley let the officials make a copy of the Zip disk
so they could continue to print out e-mails without him having to keep
vigil over the original disk.
But when they put the Zip disk in the Zip drive to copy it, suddenly
“its contents could not be read,” said Easley, who White House insiders
say is not very computer savvy.
That’s when they went back to Haas’ computer and made another Zip disk
of the files from his “F:,” or server, drive. Several additional copies
Easley says he has possession of them, along with the original,
now-”unreadable” disk — which the White House still hasn’t turned over
to U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, as he recently ordered. He
asked for the disk, readable or not.
Easley, a 13-year career civil servant, also is in charge of
safeguarding all the computer printouts of the Lewinsky e-mail files. He
says they’re “locked in the safe in my personal office.”
The strange fate of the first Zip disk is not easily ignored in view of
what Easley plans to do with the e-mail back-up tapes.
He says he’ll let the restoration contractors, ECS Technology Inc. and
SRA International Inc., make copies of the tapes. That means they won’t
be using the original tapes when they mount them on a mainframe computer
and search them for compliance with subpoenas.
Sanitizing hard drives
Some of the unrecorded e-mail may also be stored on the back-up tapes of
individual PC hard drives of former White House aides, who may have
saved in-coming messages.
In the case of ex-Gore staffers, whose out-going e-mail apparently also
was not archived, many may have also saved their own missives to a
When employees leave the White House, the Information Systems and
Technology (IST) unit is supposed to copy their hard-drive files onto
magnetic tapes before reformatting, or sanitizing, the hard drive for
the next user.
The tapes, in the form of cartridges similar to audio cassettes, are
then stored. There are about 600 of them, including those of such
ex-staffers as Patsy Thomasson, Jane Sherburne, William Kennedy, Linda
Tripp and Lewinsky.
On March 29, Easley took custody of the cartridge tapes from IST, which
is located in NEOB. He says he locked them up in Room SB-234.
But former White House computer specialist Sheryl Hall charges that the
hard-drive tapes are not safe.
In fact, she swore in a March 7 federal court affidavit that an Office
of Administration staffer told her, in several recent conversations,
that the “White House plans to destroy these archival cartridge tapes of
the computer hard drives of departed Clinton White House staffers.”
Hall, a career civil servant who’s suing the White House, claims that
White House officials are planning to erase, or “degauss,” the magnetic
tapes by running them over a powerful magnetic device. Also, she claims
they plan to stop archiving the hard drives of
departing White House staffers and destroy the data on their drives.
So if a controversial Clinton aide like Sidney Blumenthal left the White
House or moved to a different job within the White House, his hard drive
would “simply be erased and reformatted,” Hall said.
Not so, insists Office of Administration Director Michael Lyle.
He says the White House has no plans to “overwrite, alter, destroy (or)
dispose of” hard-drive files. Nor will it stop backing up hard drives of
departing staffers, says Lyle, who put Easley in charge of all the
But there are already signs that back-up tapes have been erased, says
Betty Lambuth, a former Northrop Grumman e-mail technician.
She testified to seeing a six-month gap in the 1997 back-up tapes of the
White House e-mail server. She said files were “overwritten.” The gap is
inexplicable because the server tapes are not recycled.
It apparently wouldn’t be the first time the Clinton administration
erased back-up tapes of e-mail.
Lawyers suing the Justice Department for $500 million in overtime pay
claim officials there willfully destroyed e-mail tapes relevant to their
class-action case. Justice claims it was merely a “mistake.”
Nolan, though she says she has no idea what’s on the tapes, is already
predicting the information on the White House tapes will turn out to be
“They are an incomplete and inaccurate collection of EOP (Executive
Office of the President) computer records,” she warned Congress.
Yes, not all e-mail has been captured on the tapes.
But there should be a fairly complete history of the Mail2 server e-mail
that wasn’t archived.
Snapshot of the server
Haas testified that the White House server group, before it rebuilt the
server in November 1998, made two sets of back-up tapes of the whole
Mail 2 server’s disk drive, “for the purpose of preserving the way it
In fact, an April 2, 1999, internal White House memo obtained by
WorldNetDaily states: “On Nov. 20, 1998, the Mail2 server was rebuilt.
The back-up tapes from the time period in question were collected and
stored in the data center and have not been recycled.”
Haas also took a snapshot of what was on the server in June 1998. Since
there are snapshots taken of the server at different times, they could
be matched up to help fill in any gaps.
Nolan also claimed that “without restoration (of the tapes), we cannot
know the contents of the unrecorded e-mails.”
But short of restoring and running the tapes, which appear now as a
string of hard-to-search databases of user account files, the White
House could still print out the e-mail from the server itself.
(Technicians could easily write a program that would let them search
more than one file at a time.)
Some 98 percent of the e-mails still reside on the Mail2 server, Haas
says, and the rest can more than likely be found on PC hard drives by
doing individual searches.
There’s enough storage space on the server to retain all of its e-mail
for a long time, too. Haas says only about 80 percent of the server’s
100-gigabyte storage capacity has been used.
Judicial Watch Inc. Chairman Larry Klayman says he hopes Judge Lamberth
will seize the e-mail tapes and let a third party restore them, search
them and print out the responsive e-mails. He’d also like to see the
He fears the White House will destroy data. And even if it doesn’t, he
says he recently learned from a “reliable source” that the White House
won’t search specific documents on the tapes once they’re restored to a
“The back-up e-mail tapes contain documents that the White House plans
to refuse to search — unless, presumably, ordered to do so by this
Court,” Klayman wrote in a recent contempt motion against the White
What about the tapes stored at the White House’s offsite data center?
Are they secure?
If not, investigators would probably still be able to check to see who
Computer contractors say tapes stored there would more than likely be
recorded when they arrive. Specifically, there should be a log of those
who sign the tapes in and out of the vault.
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