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IBM, Darrell Issa, and Millions of "Lost" White House Emails

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At a Congressional committee hearing in February, Theresa Payton, the chief information officer at the White House Office of Administration, testified that White House emails sent and received between 2003 and 2005 fell into a virtual black hole when the Bush administration transitioned from Lotus Notes to the Microsoft Outlook email exchange—a system that apparently was incapable of copying and archiving emails from Lotus.

For Congressman Darrell Issa, (R-Calif.), who sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and accused the committee’s Democratic leadership of trying to embarrass President Bush, Payton’s succinct testimony solved the mystery surrounding the disappearance of perhaps millions of emails, many of which are said to coincide with high-profile political scandals, such as the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, and a Supreme Court ruling involving Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force documents.

Issa stated unequivocally that Payton’s testimony confirmed that the missing communications were not the result of deliberate malfeasance by the White House or negligence by the administration’s technology staff, but simply a computer glitch that ensued when the White House wanted to phase out an archaic email program.

In an exchange with Payton, Issa characterized Lotus notes as “wagon-wheel” technology.

“I wouldn't want to do business with somebody still using Lotus Notes or still using wooden wagon wheels,” Issa responded. “If I understand correctly, though, certainly I checked with the House of Representatives, we can no longer support it for members who want to stay on it.”

In the far corners of the Internet where people engage in online discussions about computer-related issues and computer-related issues only, Issa’s characterization of Lotus Notes as a Betamax type of technology was the equivalent of blasphemy. Moreover, to suggest that a switch from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook is the reason that the White House cannot locate millions of emails shows a level of incompetence by Payton, the White House’s chief information technology officer, according to several email technology experts.

Shortly after the February 26 committee hearing, several users of Lotus Notes contacted Ed Brill, an executive at IBM who specializes in the Lotus Notes software, concerned that the way Issa and Payton characterized Lotus Notes would be bad for business if they continued using the software.

In a blog click here maintained by Brill, the IBM executive wrote that calls from users and “partners” of Lotus Notes became so “dramatic” and created such a terrible public relations problem for the company that he was forced to call Congressman Issa’s office and demand that he amend his testimony about Lotus Notes.
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“The sequence of events that followed that was quite dramatic for me, even after 20 years in the industry,” Brill wrote in a March 23 blog post. “I ended up on the phone with [Issa]. I have received a letter from the Congressman, which I hope to publish in the next week or so. The hearing testimony will also receive an amendment clarifying the intent of the commentary about Lotus Notes.”

In a brief interview, Brill said he was not authorized to speak on behalf of IBM, but said he found it “suspicious” that the White House had not recovered “old data” prior to the switch from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook. He added that he could not provide me with a copy of Issa’s letter because it contained confidential information about Lotus Notes software. However, Brill said that Issa agreed to amend his testimony to reflect that “Lotus Notes is a viable product” and that he erred when he characterized it as “wagon-wheel” technology.

Issa’s office did not return emails or phone calls for comment.

These turn of events in the yearlong case of missing White House emails underscores a deep disconnect that exists between computer experts who believe Bush administration officials have either been incompetent in archiving presidential records or have knowingly destroyed the data to cover-up their actions, and officials like Issa and Payton who blame the implementation of new technology to explain the disappearance of the emails.

David Gewirtz, a former computer science professor who has written more than 600 articles about email and recently published a book on the email controversy, "Where Have All the Emails Gone,” believes administration officials including Payton have been playing fast and loose with the facts, particularly as it relates to the cost of recovering lost emails and the time it would take to retrieve it.
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Gewirtz said Payton has misrepresented “the cost to manage data recovery by at least an order of magnitude” and has done so in an attempt to “dissuade Congress from pushing recovery.”

At the committee hearing in February, Payton pegged the total cost of recovery at about $15 million. In a sworn affidavit filed last week with U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola, Payton said the White House should not be forced to undertake a search for missing emails on individual computers and hard drives because it would be too time consuming and very expensive.

“That's just plain silly,” Gewirtz wrote in an article click here <click here published in the February issue of Outlook Power Magazine.

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Jason Leopold is Deputy Managing Editor of Truthout.org and the founding editor of the online investigative news magazine The Public Record, http://www.pubrecord.org. He is the author of the National Bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit (more...)
 

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