As North Learned, Deleted Files Are Retrievable

<i> Lawrence J. Magid is senior analyst at Seybold Group, a computer consulting and publication firm</i>

If you have been following the Iran- contra hearings, you may have heard Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and others refer to “PROFS notes.” Those are the electronic messages that were exchanged among North, Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter and others at the National Security Council, and that have emerged as evidence in the investigation of the affair.

PROFS, which stands for “Professional Office System,” is an IBM software program used for word processing, scheduling and communications. It runs on large mainframe and mid-sized minicomputers and is used in government and the private sector. IBM itself uses the program so that employees, throughout the world, can exchange messages and documents. It does not run on personal computers, although it is possible to access a computer running PROFS if your PC is properly equipped.

What is fascinating about North and his colleagues’ use of PROFS is that some of the messages that they apparently believed were deleted later were recovered by an investigator for the Tower Commission. The commission, headed by former Texas Sen. John Tower, was appointed by President Reagan last November to investigate the affair. Investigators found that North may have been adept with a paper shredder, but he apparently wasn’t so well-versed in erasing computer files. What North seems to have done was the equivalent of putting a document into the wastebasket rather than the shredder.


Initially, commission investigators analyzed PROFS messages from the White House computer that had been printed out on paper. However, there were some gaps--messages, for example, that referred to other PROFS messages that could not be found. To the rescue came Kenneth Krieg, a 26-year-old Tower Commission staffer who located some of those thought-to-be-missing messages.

Krieg refused to comment on his work. But an IBM official who asked not to be identified explained how PROFS works and how it may be possible to retrieve missing files.

It turns out a file can be recovered in several ways. To begin with, it’s important to realize that messages remain on the central computer’s hard disk until everyone who received a message deletes it. Even then, the data may remain in a “buffer,” or temporary storage area, for several days until the data processing operators purge the files.

Also, when someone sends a formal document (as opposed to a message), it is stored in a central location on the computer and a record of that file, called a “pointer,” shows up in each individual’s personal work area. Thus, when a computer user tries to delete the document, he or she actually is removing only the pointer, not the document itself.

In addition, there may be a permanent record of all computer files. Most data processing departments routinely “back up,” or copy, data on their systems to magnetic tape. That provides protection in case of a disk or computer failure or an accidental erasure. It’s a prudent routine that, at many places, is performed on a daily basis. Once a file has been copied to tape, it can be restored by authorized parties.

Although White House officials would not disclose details about their system, it is safe to assume that there are various safeguards. I don’t worry about sensitive government computer information easily getting into the hands of foreign spies. I would worry, however, if I were using a government computer to carry out clandestine activities that I wanted to hide from my colleagues, congressional committees or subsequent administrations because of how routine backup procedures are.


Messages are also protected in electronic mail systems used by personal computer users. The director of the Electronic Mail Assn., Michael F. Cavanagh, said most services maintain backup tapes for “a month or two.”

Even personal computers can restore seemingly deleted files. Several programs on the market are designed to restore data from a disk that has been damaged or erased. In addition, software such as the Norton Utilities package from Santa Monica-based Peter Norton Computing can also be used to purge data permanently.

As an interesting postscript, IBM on June 16 began offering its PROFS customers a new program called “IBM PROFS Retention Management System,” which controls the “retention and purging of stored documents.” One of the program’s features allows users to assign a name to a group of related documents so that they can “all be purged at the same time.” An IBM spokesman said the timing of the offering’s release is pure coincidence. Nevertheless, this product and others like it just might spawn a new software category: “Ollie-Ware.”