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.

"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."

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