E-Mail Outage Forces White House to Operate the Oldfangled Way

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The guy on the computer help line at the White House seemed a bit harried yesterday afternoon.

Shortly after the workweek began, the tech-savvy Obama administration was hit with a mysterious "server outage" that shut down all incoming and outgoing e-mail for more than eight hours, forcing aides to resort to old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face conversation.

"We're getting a few calls," the worker deadpanned after answering phone calls from e-mail-starved employees at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

How is it possible that the e-mail system for the White House could go down that long, a caller asked? Press secretary Robert Gibbs had just apologized on live television for the lack of any e-mail contact.

"We still don't know," the help-line guy said, adding that two e-mail servers had been rebooted but that two others remained mysteriously down, with no immediate explanation.

He then abruptly put the caller on hold, returning momentarily to say that he was no longer authorized to answer questions.

The e-mail disruption added communications insult to technological injury.

Obama aides had just switched over from their now-defunct transition accounts over the weekend and were handing out their spiffy new government e-mail addresses when the outage hit.

There was no indication that the outage caused any sort of national calamity. President Obama still managed to give former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) a formal send-off to the Middle East and to swear in Timothy F. Geithner as Treasury secretary.

But several administration officials said that business had ground to a halt because of the disruption -- and that they were fearing the deluge of messages that would come when service was restored. One person, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the disruption was made worse by the fact that people were still finding their way around the West Wing and the Old Executive Office Building and were relying heavily on e-mail to communicate with their new colleagues.

White House staff members already were frustrated by the somewhat archaic technology they discovered when they took over their offices.

Starting about 10 a.m. and lasting well into the evening yesterday, most White House aides did not receive a single e-mail. Not on their computers. Not on their BlackBerrys. Instead of the constant ping and buzz of new messages, there was just an eerie silence.

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