Here's a whoops with a capital W.
This summer the House Judiciary Committee launched an effort
to collect tips from would-be whistleblowers in the Justice Department. The U.S. attorney firings scandal had shown that much was amiss in the Department, and with the danger of retaliation very real, the committee had set up a form
on the committee's website for people to blow the whistle privately about abuses there. Although the panel said it would not accept anonymous tips, it assured those who came forward that their identity would be held in the "strictest confidence."
But in an email sent out today, the committee inadvertently sent the email addresses of all the would-be whistleblowers to everyone who had written in to the tipline. The committee email was sent to tipsters who had used the website form, including presumably whistleblowers themselves, and all of the recipients of the email were accidentally included in the "to:" field -- instead of concealing those addresses with a so-called blind carbon copy or "bcc:".
Only the email addresses were exposed; none of the names or other identifying information of the whistleblowers was revealed. The blunder, however, was noticed by a number of people who had used the website form and received today's email. One disgruntled recipient replied to the entire list of whistleblowers angrily complaining about the snafu; two others forwarded the committee email to TPMmuckraker with similar complaints.
Compounding the mistake, the committee later sent out a second email attempting to recall the original email; it, too, included all recipients in the "to:" field, according to a recipient of the emails.
A committee spokesperson emailed the following statement in response to TPMmuckraker's questions:
The tip line was created to be a confidential method for Justice Department employees to provide the Judiciary Committee with information that might aid the Committee in its ongoing investigation of politicization at the Justice Department. Because of the confidentiality agreement, the Committee will not discuss any emails sent on this tip line. A technological error in a recent communication inadvertently disclosed certain email addresses. The Committee has not begun its review of the emails, and does not know if any of them are in fact from Justice Department employees as opposed to private citizens expressing more general views. The Committee apologizes for any concern this error may have caused, and is making every effort to protect the confidentiality of those who chose to provide information on the tip line.
It's not immediately clear whether the mistake will lead to the exposure of those who had contacted the committee. There are more than 150 recipient addresses revealed in the email. Some of the email addresses appear to be transparently fake, but there's also, much more troubling, a firstname.lastname@example.org carbon copied on the email, which is the public
email address for Vice President Dick Cheney. In other words, an email containing the email addresses of all the whistleblowers who had written in to the committee tipline was sent to public email address of Vice President Cheney.
The purpose of today's mis-sent email was, ironically enough, to announce careful new procedures about to be put in place by the committee for reviewing the tips received through the committee's website. No one on the committee or any staff has reviewed any of the tips, pursuant to an agreement reached between committee Democrats and Republicans. Only "Members of the Judiciary Committee, and Committee staff specifically designated by the Democratic Chairman or Ranking Republican Member, will have access to the e-mails, and they are prohibited from removing any e-mail from Committee offices," today's email read. "This message is also to advise you that you have three business days...Â to notify us if you wish to withdraw your e-mail rather than have it reviewed by the Committee under these procedures."
The email can be read below the fold:
Subject: Important notice re House Judiciary Committee tip line, e-mails
You are among the people who have submitted e-mails to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on its Web site tip line for Department of Justice employees to report allegations or concerns regarding possible wrongdoing involving the Department. This message is to inform you that the Committee is now ending the tip line and has voted to approve procedures governing the confidentiality of the e-mails received.
Under these procedures, only Members of the Judiciary Committee, and Committee staff specifically designated by the Democratic Chairman or Ranking Republican Member, will have access to the e-mails, and they are prohibited from removing any e-mail from Committee offices. Any broader disclosure of any e-mail would first require a vote of the Committee to authorize it. It would be the CommitteeÂ¹s intent to consult with the sender of any e-mail before any such vote takes place.
This message is also to advise you that you have three business days Â until 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, October 30 Â to notify us if you wish to withdraw your e-mail rather than have it reviewed by the Committee under these procedures. If you so notify us, your e-mail, along with any records pertaining to its submission, will be destroyed. If you do not so notify us, we will conclude that you have agreed to submit your e-mail to the Committee under these procedures.
Any request that an e-mail be withdrawn should state in the subject space "PLEASE WITHDRAW E-MAIL," and should include in the body of the request the e-mail address under which your e-mail was submitted, if different than the one used to make the request to withdraw. It should also specify the date and time, if known, or the approximate date and time, that the e-mail was submitted.
Thank you for your interest in the Judiciary CommitteeÂ¹s work.