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Missing White House E Mail: A Whistleblowing Case Study

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2002 Annual Conference


Montreal, Canada

Publication Date

June 16, 2002

Start Date

June 16, 2002

End Date

June 19, 2002



Conference Session

Teaching Tools for Humanities and Ethics

Page Count


Page Numbers

7.865.1 - 7.865.13



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Paper Authors

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Edward Gehringer

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Main Menu Session 3661

Missing White House E-Mail: A Whistleblowing Case Study Edward F. Gehringer North Carolina State University


Whistleblowing is a core topic for ethics courses taught to Computer Science and Computer Engineering majors. However, most of the prominent engineering whistleblowing cases have little if anything to do with computing (the Hughes Aircraft case being a notable exception). Another recent case is appropriate for study, especially given the increasing focus on e-mail privacy in the workplace. In early 2000, allegations surfaced that the White House was concealing e-mail that could have helped reveal, among other things, the extent of Vice President Gore's involvement in campaign fundraising controversies, and whether the Clinton administration had sold trade-mission seats in exchange for campaign contributions. The former chief of White House computer operations charged that Clinton administration officials were involved in an e-mail coverup. A Northrop Grumman contractor, Betty Lambuth, testified that she was threatened with loss of her job and other consequences if she disclosed the existence of the e-mail messages. This case raises several important issues, such as the responsibility of a contractor to its client vs. its responsibility to the public, and how much evidence of technical malfunctions should be needed before an organization (in this case, the White House) is obligated to inform other stakeholders.

1. Introduction

Whistleblowing is a topic of growing importance to students in all branches of engineering, including computer science and computer engineering. As Bowyer [24] has noted, whistle- blowing is mentioned in all the major codes of ethics relevant to the computing profession, the IEEE code, the ACM code, the AITP Standards of Conduct, and the IEEE-CS/ACM Software Engineering Code of Ethics. However, most well known examples of whistleblowing hail from other fields, such as civil and mechanical engineering. A notable exception is the case of Ruth Aldred and Margaret Goodearl [24], who revealed fraud in the testing of chips made by Hughes Aircraft and used in a variety of sophisticated electronics systems, such as aircraft radar units. Another example is the case of missing White House e-mail.

The principals in this case were systems administrators and computer technicians under contract to the White House who discovered that e-mail was not being logged as it was supposed to be. It is particularly relevant to our students, since many if not most of them will install or administer e-mail systems at one time or another. Also, many of them will work under contract to other organizations, and therefore have to balance the interests of their employer, their clients, and the general public. The case came to light in early 2000, and though it did not become a major factor in the 2000 Presidential election campaign, it is quite well documented, with civil and criminal cases as well as dozens of articles in major newspapers. Since there does not seem to be another description of the case from start to finish, this paper will endeavor to provide one, followed by a discussion of the issues it raises for computer professionals.

Proceedings of the 2002 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright Ó 2002, American Society for Engineering Education

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Gehringer, E. (2002, June), Missing White House E Mail: A Whistleblowing Case Study Paper presented at 2002 Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada. 10.18260/1-2--10778

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