Tech idiocy in the White House

Not only has the White House lost 5 million emails - or not, they aren't sure - vital White House emails have for years been run through an insecure 12-man ISP in Chattanooga Tennessee. Why?
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

Not only has the White House lost 5 million emails - or not, they aren't sure - vital White House emails have for years been run through an insecure 12-man ISP in Chattanooga Tennessee. Why? Because our laws around Presidential records preservation are at odds with other laws against partisan political work by government employees.

The Internet is insecure? Who knew? Not the first MBA president. Or his security-mad VP.

The VP's mania for secrecy includes a man-sized safe in his office and stamping "Top Secret" on press releases. Evidently it never occurred to him that White House emails could be easily read by foreign powers or terrorist groups.

Another oddity: the White House migrated from an enterprise-class Lotus Notes email system to Microsoft Exchange during the build-up to the Iraq war. The White House has suggested that the emails were lost during that migration. Which is as likely as the "accidental" 18 and a half minute gap in the Nixon tapes.

Read the whole story David Gewirtz, author of the book Where Have All The Emails Gone? has pioneered a new form of investigative reporting by taking a technical look at the White House email infrastructure. You don't find screenshots of WHOIS output and Mail eXchange lookups in the Washington Post.

According to his bio on Zatz.com,

Gewirtz is a former professor of computer science, has lectured at Princeton, Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford, and has been awarded the prestigious Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering.

His company publishes books and newsletters about enterprise email systems.

It isn't about lost emails Gewirtz started looking at the White House email infrastructure - he publishes newsletters on Outlook and Lotus Domino - to find out how 5 million emails might get lost. He found something far more dangerous: an insecure White House email infrastructure.

The White House is legally required to preserve all presidential records, a law that Presidents don't like. Ever since document shredding by Ollie North and Admiral John Poindexter - a Cal Tech PhD, by the way - during Iran/Contra was documented in "deleted" emails, the executive branch has had an uneasy relationship with email. They use it, but they fear it.

Under the Hatch Act, passed in 1939, Federal employees are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity at work. But for senior presidential political advisors some of its prohibitions are outdated and dangerous to national security.

As Mr. Gewirtz puts it:

This isn't about whether you George W. Bush or not, or whether you like Bill Clinton on not. It's about email usage, management and oversight in the Executive Office of the President - not just Goerge W. Bush's EOP, but email usage for any administration.

GWB43.com When the Bush administration came in they decided to use external servers for "political" email that, legally, could not be sent through internal government servers. These "political" email accounts were set up on the domain "GWB43.com" hosted by the small ISP in Tennessee which also hosted numerous GOP-related sites.

The security lapses Gewirtz identifies several problems with this arrangement.

  1. He estimates that, at a minimum, over 100,000,000 emails from White House staffers have been sent since 9-11-01, completely in the open for anyone to read.
  2. Many emails likely contained information useful to our enemies.
  3. No archiving systems kept copies of these official documents.

The convoluted White House email system almost seems designed to lose email.

The Storage Bits take I recommend Gewirtz' book to anyone who wants a non-partisan understanding of the White House email mess. While I don't agree with his analysis at every point he makes some important recommendations, including:

  • The Hatch Act should be amended to require that all EOP emails, political or not, go through secure government servers.
  • A professional civil-service IT team is needed to manage and protect White House email systems and archiving across administrations, just as the Secret Service protects the President.
  • The primacy of Presidential records preservation must be established once and for all. Presidents have secrets they'd like to keep, but succeeding Presidents need to be able to know what their predecessors did. That means all records, all the time. No exceptions.

Comments welcome, as always.

Editorial standards