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WASHINGTON — When he settled into his White House office in 1993, Vice President Al Gore said he was stunned at how “primitive” the White House phone system was.

He said it reminded him of “the switchboard used by Ernestine, the Lily Tomlin character.” Like a “tin can and wire,” aides of President Clinton reportedly grumbled.

So the new tenants ripped out the old Northern Telecom system and replaced it with a new phone system installed by AT&T. By 1996, everything had been replaced: PBX switch, routers, trunk lines, phone lines, desk phones, computers, software, even phone jacks.

The White House, sidestepping the usual competitive bidding process, went ahead and inked the more than $25 million contract in spite of a congressional review that found the existing system worked just fine. The old switchboard, which could handle up to 200,000 calls an hour, wasn’t overloaded, as officials had claimed. It was just understaffed.

Hill investigators said taxpayers essentially got stuck with a huge tab so that twenty-something White House aides could have caller ID and whiz-bang voice mail.

But that’s not all they got, WorldNetDaily has learned.

What Congress doesn’t know is that the White House at the same time changed the software that records phone detail, as part of a scheme to hide the origin of White House calls made overseas — including calls to China, claims a former White House official who managed the PBX switch and the AT&T contractors.

Customizing the software cost taxpayers more than a half million dollars, the official says.

“They had the software changed out with AT&T, so you don’t see the originating telephone number at the user’s desk,” said Sheryl Hall, former White House phone manager, in an exclusive interview with WorldNetDaily.

The software was installed during the phone switch conversion in 1993 and 1994. But when Hall inherited the phone system in 1995, contractors were still finishing up the custom coding.

“It took a period of months to suppress a lot of the information they wanted suppressed,” she recalled.

By masking international phone activity, the White House may have withheld potentially valuable information from federal investigators looking into scandals such as Chinagate.

For years, officials have been telling Congress and federal prosecutors that they can’t turn over more detailed phone records, which have been subpoenaed, because of phone system limitations.

What they’ve failed to mention is that they paid AT&T programmers to install those limitations. The old system had tracked the origination of international calls placed from within the White House. Clinton officials had the feature turned off when they put in the new system.

Asked about it, the White House Telephone Service office referred questions to AT&T’s contract office inside the White House.

A spokesman there said, “I’m not allowed to talk about it. That’s what I’ve been instructed to do.”

He said it was a matter of security, even though the White House phone system is not classified.

Despite the change, the new system still generates enough detail to give a rough map of internal caller traffic.

“You can see the trunk number,” Hall explained, “so you can still tell, most likely, if the call came from the new building (where Gore has his office) or if the call came from the White House.”

For instance, phone trunk lines off of “node 6″ serve the West Wing, the East Wing and the Oval Office, and not the New Executive Office Building across from the White House.

Hall adds that phone detail still shows the international number that was dialed — including country code and city code — the date and time of the call, and the length of the call.

While routinely thumbing through AT&T’s long-distance records, Hall says she was shocked by spikes in White House calls to certain countries during and after the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign.

“Each month I would review the phone records,” she said, “and I’d see hundreds of calls to China, hundreds of calls to Switzerland, hundreds of calls to France, each month in 1996 and 1997 and 1998.”

Of course, officials from the National Security Council and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative make a lot of overseas calls from the White House.

“But when you sit and look at it month after month, and when you see what was going on in the paper, it’s unusual,” Hall said.

After the election, the Democratic National Committee — which in 1996 was controlled by the Clinton-Gore campaign — had to return about $3 million in illegal or shady donations.

Roughly half of the haul was generated by hand-picked Clinton-Gore fund-raiser John Huang. Recently convicted of fund-raising abuses, Huang has close ties to Beijing though his former employer, Indonesia-based Lippo Group.

A government contractor familiar with White House phone operations and long distance billing detail says that the number of White House phone calls to the defense minister in Beijing is “surprising.” So are “more than 50 calls to Indonesia in one month” in 1996.

There’s also a “flurry of calls to Switzerland approaching November 1996,” the source said.

Can the phone system software be reprogrammed to go back and trace the White House desks from which international calls were dialed? And can that historic data be generated in the form of reports for investigators to review?

It’s possible, Hall says.

“You can turn the call detail back on,” she said. “It’s not easy to do, but it can be done.”

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