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In D.C., a new symbol of true insider status: e-mail with the chief

President Obama used his BlackBerry or similar device Thursday. His new e-mail address is a closely guarded secret. President Obama used his BlackBerry or similar device Thursday. His new e-mail address is a closely guarded secret. (Saul Loeb/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Peter Baker
New York Times / February 1, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Anthony Lake served as one of Barack Obama's principal counselors on foreign affairs during the campaign and exchanged e-mail messages with him regularly. But now that Obama is president, Lake no longer has his e-mail address.

"No," he said when asked whether he had it. "Did. Don't."

Neither does Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, nor Steny H. Hoyer, the majority leader, but they do not use e-mail much anyway. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, is a BlackBerry fiend, but he does not have Obama's address. Nor do many members of the Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Vice President Joe Biden has it, along with his own new super-secret BlackBerry and e-mail address. So do Obama's chief of staff, his top advisers, and some of his oldest friends from Chicago.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, a fellow Illinois Democrat, probably has it, but refuses to say. "We're not going to discuss it," said a spokesman, Joe Shoemaker. Asked why, he said, "That's pretty obvious, isn't it?"

It is now the ultimate status symbol in a town obsessed by status. Obama was spotted recently trying out his new BlackBerry - or actually a more sophisticated, encrypted variation, and aides say that he uses a computer in the study next to the Oval Office, but that he has agreed to limit the number of people he would exchange e-mail with. In the process, he created a new measure for Washington to judge who really has the ear, or the thumb, of the president.

For decades, the capital scoured state dinner invitation lists and Camp David visitor logs for clues to who was in and who was out. Now there is Obama's e-mail, the first time a commander in chief has used it while in office. "This is the 21st-century version of the same special access that certain people are always granted to the president," said Joel P. Johnson, a senior White House adviser under Clinton. "In FDR's White House, it was Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes. There will be a similar select few in this White House."

Those select few who have Obama's e-mail address, according to people informed about the matter, include Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff; David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, both senior advisers; and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary. But Cabinet members like the interior secretary, Ken Salazar, said they did not have it. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is a frequent BlackBerry user, but a spokesman said he did not know whether she had the president's address.

The exclusivity is not just a matter of safeguarding the president's time or even protecting him from spam. Security personnel worry that the more available his address, the more vulnerable it may be to hacking pranksters or, worse, to cyber-attackers from, say, Russia or China.

Imagine a president's e-mail put on display for the whole world to see - or perhaps just for the head of a hostile foreign intelligence service.

To minimize the risk, the White House technology gurus have made it impossible to forward e-mail messages from the president or to send him attachments, according to people informed about the precautions. His address is likely to be changed regularly as well. And the president's friends and staff members are being lectured about security.

John D. Podesta ran Obama's transition and exchanged e-mail with him virtually every day from the election to the inauguration. But he did not join the administration and does not have the new address. "Some things are secret," Podesta said, although he added, "My guess is the list will grow."

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