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Reply to All: Please Be Patient With Us Folk in the White House

Times Staff Writer

The Bush White House is having trouble communicating with the outside world -- literally.

Its electronic mail system has slowed to a crawl, causing incoming and outgoing mail to be delayed by a few hours or even overnight.

White House officials said Wednesday that the glitches have not affected the affairs of state. They blamed the slowdown, which began about two weeks ago, on the high volume of e-mail and online traffic, including activity associated with the White House Web site, www.whitehouse.gov.

But some information technology experts say the explanation may not be quite that simple, especially considering several recent developments at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

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Last month the White House converted its e-mail system from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook. Additionally, the White House is moving to a new e-mail server to better handle traffic.

But several West Wing staffers, speaking on condition of anonymity, offered another theory about the slowdown: it can be traced to the system’s “firewall,” which is designed to protect it from hackers by filtering out unwanted incoming missives, they said.

“Something happened with our firewall, and things really got jammed up,” one aide said Wednesday. “Tech support had to shut down the whole thing, and just barely got it up and running this morning.”

The problem has hampered the e-mail capabilities of most, if not all, White House staffers -- but not President Bush, who no longer sends e-mails because of security concerns.

One senior aide who works steps from the Oval Office did not receive an e-mail sent Tuesday morning until the end of the day.

Officials said the internal White House e-mail communications have not been disrupted. They also said a separate, classified e-mail system used by the National Security Council was also unaffected.

In any case, not everyone at the White House is unhappy about the slowdown.

Noelia Rodriguez, a top aide to Laura Bush, is among those who have experienced the problem. And while it took one e-mail longer than three hours to reach her on Tuesday afternoon, she is not complaining.

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“Problems in getting e-mail? I’d like to have that problem. Where do I sign up?” she quipped.

Reporters covering President Bush were among the first outsiders to notice the delays, as routine press advisories and official announcements from the White House abruptly began arriving very late or not at all.

Instant theories sprouted among the press corps.

Could it be related to the recent departure of a press aide who processed such e-mails? Was her replacement not quite up to snuff, technologically speaking? Was this another downturn in the uneasy co-existence between the White House and the Fourth Estate?

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None of the above, said White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

“The issue here,” he said Wednesday, “is the large quantities of e-mail coming into and going out of the White House.”

Avi Rubin, an author and professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, downplayed the firewall theory.

Alan Pallen, another information technology expert, added, “There are multiple reasons why mail slows down.” He also considered volume to be low on the list of likely culprits.

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Rather, Pallen suggested, the problem may be settings in the e-mail filter system that cause mail to be “queued up” for prolonged periods.

Rubin agreed. “More likely [it] is some kind of configuration error during the conversion,” he said.

Whatever the reason, White House officials said, the problem should be ephemeral. Indeed, there were signs late Wednesday that the e-mail flow was starting to return to normal.


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