For the moment, says TIME White House correspondent Karen Tumulty, the anti-Clinton buzz on Capitol Hill isn't as strong as when previous allegations came to light. "It just sort of proves that there's never going to be a stake driven into the heart of all the investigations that have plagued the Clinton White House," she says. The Justice Department investigation revolves around thousands of e-mails lost between 1996 and 1998, when members of the administration mistakenly sent transmissions to the nonexistent "MAIL2" folder, instead of typing "Mail2." Northrop Grumman, which built the e-mail system, caught the glitch in January 1998 and immediately notified the White House. Three of the firm's employees now say they were threatened by presidential aides with dismissal and jail time if they reported the lost e-mails, which, according to one techie, included dirt on the Lewinsky scandal, Filegate and campaign finance activities of 1996. White House representatives said no such threats were made.
Beyond the usual allegations and denials, though, the case may contain some particular problems. Unless it can be proved that a vast right-wing conspiracy forced the Northrop Grumman staffers into lie under oath, it might be hard to convince the public that a group of pocket-protector-wearing techies had anything to gain by fabricating allegations. Adding to the administration's load are claims by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, whose $90 million civil suit filed against the White House led to the DOJ investigation, that Justice took over the case simply to delay the civil action until President Clinton leaves office. So once again the mud is flying around the White House, a fact that its enemies lost no time trying to exploit. Noting that some of the lost files were addressed to Vice President Gore, George W. Bush immediately went on the attack. "There needs to be a controlling legal authority in the White House," he snickered while campaigning in Florida Thursday.