White House officials Alan R. Swendiman and Theresa Payton testifying at a recent congressional hearing on missing White House e-mails. (AP)
Are political journalists falling prey to technological misdirection?
COMMENTARY | April 11, 2008
An information technology expert suggests five important points journalists are overlooking when it comes to the missing White House e-mails.
By David Gewirtz
There’s been remarkably little press coverage of the apparent disappearance of millions of White House e-mails. And what little there’s been has underestimated both the negligence of the White House’s information technologists and the troubling national security consequences.
Here are five important points – somewhat self-evident to e-mail experts -- that journalists are overlooking.
#1: The White House’s e-mail archiving system is wildly inadequate to the point of negligence.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing into the millions of potentially missing White House e-mail messages in late February. Unfortunately, the committee members and the reporters covering the hearing completely missed the significance of a key bit of information.
In his written responses to committee questions, Steven McDevitt, a former information technology specialist at the White House, stated that White House e-mails had been archived in .PST files, and that "there were over 5,000 .PST files with an average size of approximately 2 Gigabytes."
Why is this statement so technically significant? Probably the number one question we get from readers of OutlookPower Magazine, a publication aimed at e-mail users and administrators, is how to recover corrupted .PST files. PST is the file format Outlook uses to store its e-mail in, and is quite explicitly not an enterprise-level archiving technology.
There's also a limit to the PST file format, in that all PST files created by Outlook prior to Outlook 2003 had a 2 gigabyte limit. In fact, Microsoft recommends never, ever letting your PST file get above 1.6 gigabytes, because of the likelihood of corruption and the difficulty in restoration.
So what congressmen and journalists missed was the fact that the bulk of the White House e-mail records are now stored in bundles of rotting computer files, at or above their safe file-size limit.
#2: The White House apparently had no good reason to switch e-mail systems in the first place.
The whole archiving mess stems from the White House’s switch from IBM's Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook. Members of congress attending the February hearing were led to believe the switch was urgently needed. Congressman Darrell Issa asked, "Lotus Notes no longer exists, right? " And White House CIO Theresa Payton replied, "It is no longer supported. Some groups may still use it, but it is no longer supported."
But Lotus Notes remains a multi-billion dollar IBM product, an active, vibrant messaging system that's had a major upgrade as recently as last month. And allowing Payton’s answer to go unchallenged allowed her to get away without ever justifying why the switch ever took place. If you think Lotus Notes is an obsolete technology, then migrating away from it, even in a build-up to war, might make sense.
But if you realize that Notes is anything but obsolete, then you have to ask: Why did a migration occur at such a critical time? Why was it put in motion without a stable archiving solution? Was that a bug, or a feature?
#3: The Hatch Act has made it much too easy to bypass the Presidential Records Act.
Another key element of the White House e-mail scandal is that many White House aides apparently used their Republican National Committee e-mail accounts for official White House business.
The Hatch Act prohibits aides from using White House resources, such as e-mail, for their purely political communication. As a result, many White House aides had RNC e-mail accounts to use for those purposes. But some of those aides, including Karl Rove, apparently ended up using their RNC accounts for official White House business as well – though whether they did so out of convenience or out of a desire to avoid scrutiny isn’t entirely clear.
According to analysis done at OutlookPower, in the 2,072 days between September 11, 2001 and May 15, 2007, a minimum of 103.6 million messages were likely sent by White House staffers on RNC servers.
That’s an overt violation of the Presidential Records Act. Because these e-mails weren’t on White House servers, there wasn’t even a token attempt made to preserve them as is required by federal law. In fact, the RNC regularly deleted those e-mails.
But this is primarily a structural flaw: The Hatch Act makes it much too simple a matter for a White House staffer to decide he or she doesn't want a message saved forever, and to instead send it through private-sector servers. It's not nefarious -- it's human nature.
#4: Insecure messaging puts national security at risk.
What little press coverage the Hatch Act provisions have gotten has focused on the overt violation of the Presidential Records Act. But from an e-mail administrator’s perspective, the Hatch Act is significant for entirely different reasons: It has opened up a huge security vulnerability by forcing White House aides to use private-sector resources for some of their communication, bypassing all of the government's security resources.
Imagine a White House aide sending an e-mail message about a campaign appearance to another aide, working just a few feet away. Because of the Hatch Act, that e-mail message can't travel through the White House e-mail servers. Instead, it leaves the desk of the first staffer, travels all the way down to Chattanooga, Tenn., where the RNC houses its servers, and then travels all the way back to Washington (a round-trip distance of 1,200 miles).
For nearly all of those 1,200 miles, the message travels through the open, unsecured Internet, available for possible interception all along the way. Even if the message is encrypted, it can still be captured and potentially cracked because the SMTP protocol used by e-mail servers is a totally insecure transmission mechanism.
And very little information passing between White House aides is without at least some strategic value. Any communication that could possibly cause a national security risk should use secure government systems.
This should encompass all e-mail communication by such staffers, including personal communication. Whether it's a note about going on a date or a note about picking up milk, those e-mail messages (and, by extension, instant messages as well) should be managed securely.
#5: And what about all those amazing gadgets?
If you watch spy movies back in the 60s, you're familiar with the image of the government courier handcuffed to an important briefcase. Today, many key government officials carry BlackBerry handheld smartphones instead. They're easier to carry, can hold a lot more information, and provide excellent, instant, two-way communication.
Unfortunately, they're also easy to lose. According to congressional testimony by Susan Ralston, Karl Rove's former assistant, Rove lost his BlackBerry more than once, possibly as many as four or five times. Given the rigors of the job, long hours, and high stress, it's not surprising that White House staffers sometimes lose things.
But in addition to the risk of open e-mail communication described above, there's the very real concern about what happens if a lost BlackBerry falls into the hands of the enemy.
A typical BlackBerry has 64MB of memory, at minimum (they also often have expansion slots for more memory). Let's put this in perspective. The King James Bible is about 1,120 pages, or about 2.5MB, so a typical BlackBerry could hold about 25 King James Bible's worth of information. That's the equivalent in strategic U.S. government information of about 28,000 printed pages of data, or seven complete sets of all seven Harry Potter novels.
Given the reality that these are small machines that, when lost, can do a lot of potential damage, I recommend a comprehensive contingency procedure be put into place when such a device is lost or misplaced.
Clearly, these devices have proven too useful to ban them from use. But each staffer issued such a device needs to be trained to notify the Electronic Communication Protection Detail (a group I've recommend be created to manage all of the e-mail security issues) immediately when a device is lost. I recommend that no communication device be issued to White House staffers without two key features: location and destruction.
It is possible to both remotely erase certain BlackBerry devices and remotely locate them. When lost, a team from the Electronic Communication Protection Detail should first trigger the remote erase and then a tracking team needs to be dispatched to recover these little mobile nightmares as quickly as possible.