- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2000

A federal judge accused the White House yesterday of keeping him in the dark about how long it would take to restore thousands of lost Clinton administration e-mail messages.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth said the White House never told him that revised estimates for the project were vastly different from what administration lawyers had reported in a lawsuit in the case.

White House officials earlier this year said thousands of e-mail messages, including some from Vice President Al Gore's office, were not properly archived. As a result, the messages were never reviewed by White House lawyers to determine whether they should be turned over to investigators under subpoena in cases ranging from the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Whitewater to campaign fund raising.

Judge Lamberth, who is holding hearings to determine how to retrieve the messages and get them to investigators, has heard testimony since Thursday from current and former White House computer technicians.

Yesterday, he angrily criticized the administration for failing to notify him earlier that a series of unsuccessful computer tests in the project have delayed it, resulting in estimates that range from a few months to several years.

"You weren't going to admit that until it was drug out of you in this hearing," Judge Lamberth, a native Texan, told Justice Department lawyer James Gilligan, who is arguing the case on behalf of the White House. Mr. Gilligan is representing the Executive Office of the President.

Judge Lamberth also complained that the White House couldn't give him a firm figure on the number of computer backup tapes that must be searched for missing e-mail.

"How does the number keep growing every day?" he asked Mr. Gilligan.

Mr. Gilligan replied that administration officials didn't mean to mislead the judge, but said supervisors were struggling to manage the complex e-mail case.

The judge and Clinton administration critics including Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, have grown increasingly critical of the White House's failure to produce a single piece of e-mail from backup tapes in the almost five months since the problem became public. Mr. Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, is urging Attorney General Janet Reno to support appointment of a special master to supervise recovery of the e-mail.

Judicial Watch, the conservative group that has brought the $90 million class-action lawsuit, has accused the White House of dragging its feet to delay retrieval of the messages until after the presidential election.

The group also maintains that the White House intentionally hired consultants with little expertise in restoring the data to delay the investigation. Judicial Watch has even offered to conduct a test of a computer system that wasn't chosen, maintaining that it would be 10 times faster than the one the government is using.

Judge Lamberth didn't immediately rule on the proposal. He plans to hear more testimony later this week.

The White House in April told the judge it could deliver results within 170 days a figure quoted at the time by White House counsel Beth Nolan at a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee.

Since then, technicians testified, they have tested three computer systems, all of which failed to produce acceptable results. A fourth system was approved on Thursday, and workers have begun using it to copy backup tapes of the e-mail. So far, the new system has produced two unacceptable copies and two more that are being reviewed by the FBI.

Judge Lamberth, a Reagan appointee, could appoint a special master to oversee production of the e-mail or order another company to perform the reconstruction. He also could let the White House proceed with the job.

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