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Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009

If the Obama campaign represented a sleek, new iPhone kind of future, the first day of the Obama administration looked more like the rotary-dial past.

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.

What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.

"It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said of his new digs.

In many ways, the move into the White House resembled a first day at school: Advisers wandered the halls, looking for their offices. Aides spent hours in orientation, learning such things as government ethics rules as well as how their paychecks will be delivered. And everyone filled out a seemingly endless pile of paperwork.

There were plenty of first-day glitches, too, as calls to many lines in the West Wing were met with a busy signal all morning and those to the main White House switchboard were greeted by a recording, redirecting callers to the presidential Web site. A number of reporters were also shut out of the White House because of lost security clearance lists.

By late evening, the vaunted new White House Web site did not offer any updated posts about President Obama's busy first day on the job, which included an inaugural prayer service, an open house with the public, and meetings with his economic and national security teams.

Nor did the site reflect the transparency Obama promised to deliver. "The President has not yet issued any executive orders," it stated hours after Obama issued executive orders to tighten ethics rules, enhance Freedom of Information Act rules and freeze the salaries of White House officials who earn more than $100,000.

The site was updated for the first time last night, when information on the executive orders was added. But there were still no pool reports or blog entries.

No one could quite explain the problem -- but they swore it would be fixed.

One member of the White House new-media team came to work on Tuesday, right after the swearing-in ceremony, only to discover that it was impossible to know which programs could be updated, or even which computers could be used for which purposes. The team members, accustomed to working on Macintoshes, found computers outfitted with six-year-old versions of Microsoft software. Laptops were scarce, assigned to only a few people in the West Wing. The team was left struggling to put closed captions on online videos.

Senior advisers chafed at the new arrangements, which severely limit mobility -- partly by tradition but also for security reasons and to ensure that all official work is preserved under the Presidential Records Act.

"It is what it is," said a White House staff member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Nobody is being a blockade right now. It's just the system we need to go through."

The system has daunted past White House employees. David Almacy, who became President George W. Bush's Internet director in 2005, recalled having a week-long delay between his arrival at the White House and getting set up with a computer and a BlackBerry.

"The White House itself is an institution that transitions regardless of who the president is," he said. "The White House is not starting from scratch. Processes are already in place."

One White House official, who arrived breathless yesterday after being held up at the exterior gate, found he had no computer or telephone number. Recently called back from overseas duty, he ended up using his foreign cellphone.

Another White House official whose transition cellphone was disconnected left a message temporarily referring callers to his wife's phone.

Several people tried to route their e-mails through personal accounts.

But there were no missing letters from the computer keyboards, as Bush officials had complained of during their transition in 2001.

And officials in the press office were prepared: In addition to having their own cellphones, they set up Gmail accounts, with approval from the White House counsel, so they could send information in more than one way.

Staff writers Jose Antonio Vargas and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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