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House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood removes a copy of Kenneth Starr's report last Friday. (AP)

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The Corrected Footnotes (Washington Post, Sept. 16)

Report Storms Across Internet (Washington Post, Sept. 12)

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Glitches Altered Version of Starr Report Online, in Post

By John Mintz and Nathan Abse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 16, 1998; Page A34

Computer glitches brought on by the haste of events last Friday caused scores of errors in the footnotes of the version of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report that was printed in The Washington Post and some other newspapers on Saturday and that the House of Representatives put out on the Internet when the report was released.

The mistakes were mostly insubstantial and did not alter the meaning of Starr's report on President Clinton's affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

But the House's rushed release of the report, only hours after the chamber itself voted to look at the document for the first time, is a cautionary tale about the dangers of split-second judgments when it comes to pumping information into cyberspace.

The problems came about because of peculiarities in software coding that are revealed when documents are transferred from one computer format to another, congressional aides and Starr staff members said.

In this case, Starr's team had written the 453-page report using WordPerfect software. The problem arose when technicians at the House clerk's office and the House Oversight Committee, who oversee the House's massive information technology operations, converted the document on Friday to the format used on the Internet, called HTML or hypertext markup language.

The report suddenly sprouted footnotes that previously had been trimmed by Starr's prosecutors and dropped some words intended for publication. In some cases, footnote numbers were removed from the main text where they belonged.

Here's one type of glitch that cropped up: When one edits out footnoted material in WordPerfect, the document inserts an invisible symbol into the text that says, in effect, ignore the following passage. But the conversion to HTML had the effect of inserting a countermanding symbol: Ignore the ignore command.

House computer technicians made the conversion in an atmosphere of extraordinary tension last Friday afternoon, as television news crews read passages from the report live, and pushy reporters called in every chit they had with friendly congressional sources to lay hands early on the coveted Starr document.

House staff members started handing out computer disks filled with the errant data in the mid-afternoon. An internal House computer network posted a tepid warning accompanying the report that this was an early version subject to alteration, but nobody paid attention. Reporters raced back to their newsrooms with both the faulty disks and the correctly worded paper versions.

At about 5:30 p.m. -- deadline for many news organizations on a harried day -- Starr's office and House technicians phoned with a word of caution for reporters and congressional offices carrying the report on their Web sites.

"The House people called late in the afternoon and asked if we could post a note on our site that said there were some technical errors in the conversion process," said Herbert Becker, director of the Library of Congress's information services, which was displaying the Starr report on the Web. The library's online site, called Thomas, corrected the report on Saturday morning.

"This event just shows that technologically, we're just not quite there yet," Becker said. "We're all still early on in developing techniques to do complete edit-checking. You need human intervention, and that takes time. But recall that everyone was operating under a great sense of urgency last Friday."

The Saturday corrected posting was too late for news organizations that print on paper, like that day's newspapers. The Washington Post's online service, washingtonpost.com, updated its searchable Starr report with the corrections.

One of the mistakenly added footnotes -- which had previously been edited out by Starr's staff but then incorrectly restored -- concerned a ruckus Lewinsky caused at a Secret Service guard shack last December when officers refused to admit her to the White House. One officer tells her the president was meeting with television journalist Eleanor Mondale. In the deleted footnote, Lewinsky is quoted as saying: "Maybe she's not sleeping with him yet. Anyway, there's the excitement. It's the president."

(Asked Monday about Lewinsky's speculation about any romantic involvement, Mondale described it as "baseless." The daughter of former vice president Walter F. Mondale said she had stopped by the White House briefly that day to say "hello," noting that "our families have been friendly for decades.")

The mistakes appeared to be random -- some undermined the case of the president and various White House employees, and others buttressed their positions.

One mistakenly dropped passage, for example, concerns testimony Clinton secretary Betty Currie gave about passing to Lewinsky gifts that Clinton had bought on a Martha's Vineyard vacation.

In a footnote that was mistakenly dropped, it was said that during her grand jury appearance, Currie "acknowledged . . . that in presenting [the gifts], she might have implied that President Clinton had gotten them especially for her."

In another passage mistakenly removed, Starr's team wrote about the day after Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones case -- where Clinton had testified he could not recall ever being alone with Lewinsky -- and asked if Currie's recollection coincided with his.

This is the partial basis for one of Starr's allegations that Clinton attempted to obstruct justice by suggesting supportive scenarios to staff members likely to be called to testify themselves.

In the sentence that was dropped, Currie indicated that her initial grand jury testimony -- in which she had strongly suggested that Clinton had appeared to be trying to get her to agree with him -- was more accurate than subsequent statements in which she was less sure. Or, in her words, "closer to the event, my recollection would be better."

Staff writer Jo Rector contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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