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E-Mail Outage Forces White House to Operate the Oldfangled Way
"It's absolutely ridiculous," one aide fumed as the outage dragged into its eighth hour. "This is the freakin' West Wing."
The result was a weirdly old-fashioned kind of day at the White House. Instead of BlackBerrys, everyone used cellphones -- a decidedly 1990s technology that used to serve as the principal means of communication in Washington political circles.
Pink while-you-were-out pads popped up on the desks of White House press assistants, who were suddenly unable to field the flurry of questions they normally get from reporters.
"I haven't had a less stressful day in five years," Gibbs joked, pointing at the BlackBerry on his desk and noting that it would make a good coaster. "The president can have my BlackBerry as far as I'm concerned."
Katie Lillie, director of White House press advance, is responsible for herding the press corps from place to place. Normally, her BlackBerry relentlessly fills with questions and complaints.
"You know, it's good," she said as she led a group of reporters to the Cabinet Room, where Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were meeting.
"People who are worried about stuff? I don't know about it," she said.
Josh Earnest, another press assistant, said he had "met a lot of people" yesterday because he could no longer rely on the relatively impersonal e-mail system to communicate.
"It's very old-fashioned," he said.
So how does a modern White House run without e-mail?
The press office could not send releases, transcripts or memos to its growing list of reporters across the country. Instead, it simply handed out photocopies to the reporters gathered in the White House briefing room.
"It's like the old days, where you guys are running to the pay phone to call your papers," said press assistant Tommy Vietor.
At 5:30 p.m., Vietor's voice boomed over the loudspeaker in the White House briefing room, informing those present that the transcript of the president's comments with Clinton were ready. The transcripts normally go out by e-mail.
At 5:43, reporters received a report from the small group of reporters who had observed the Obama-Clinton meeting, sent by the White House Correspondents' Association.
"***NOTE: The White House email system is down," the e-mail read. "The press office has agreed to allow the WHCA to distribute this report today. PLEASE share with colleagues who are not on the list. Thanks!***"
Aides said the first lady's office was also without e-mail service, as were other offices in the government's most famous building.
There was no indication late Monday when e-mail service would return.
As to other, more sophisticated communications equipment at the White House -- including systems that might be found in the Situation Room -- an aide said: "We don't comment on security issues."