You expect me to believe he doesn't have a cell phone?
I'm on the trail of the politicians, trying to get their views on
exporting strong encryption technology. The trail is getting narrower.
Our plan to interview a prominent member of the software development
community fell through when we couldn't reach our potential interviewee, who was
out of the country. It was getting late and we needed a story. My
editor-in-chief, J.D. Hildebrand, and news editor Bob Arnson came striding down
the hall to my desk. "We've got a great idea," J.D. said with his
usual enthusiasm. Oh no. I could see it coming.
J.D. went on to explain that presidential candidate and current Vice President Al Gore
had recently reversed his stand on exporting strong encryption technology beyond
the borders of the United States. Once
opposed to the export of this technology, Gore -- now blazing the campaign trail
-- had come out in support of sharing strong encryption with the rest of the
"Wouldn't it be great," J.D. said, "if we could talk to Gore
and ask him why he changed his mind? Talk to him about his views on the issue?
He invented the Internet, you know." There it was.
My task for the afternoon would be to track down our vice
president and pin him down on the issue, to challenge him regarding his
flip-flop on strong encryption technology. For balance, I would also try to contact Gore's
likely Republican rival in next year's presidential race, Texas Governor George W. Bush.
No problem, I thought. Why wouldn't the vice president want to talk to an
associate editor of an online news magazine for software developers? I'm a bona
fide member of the press. I was a newspaper reporter in Nashua, New Hampshire
for six years. (Notice I said New Hampshire, you know, first in the nation when
it comes to presidential primaries.
That'll be my in.)
I called D.C. information because, believe it or not, I don't have the number
for the White House in my Rolodex. The operator -- Lenny was his name, I later
found out as he talked to himself -- told me he had a "bazillion"
listings. Together we waded through them, trying to narrow down my search, but
none seemed appropriate: White House Communications Committee, White House
Project. I glanced at my watch. Deadline was fast approaching. "Oh, here we
go, federal government. Push the right buttons, Lenny," he said. We settled
on "presidential inquiries," which I assumed would be a main
I shut myself in an empty office to make the call. A conversation
with our country's second-in-command required privacy. I dialed the number Lenny
gave me. Some automated comment line, no good. I called information again and
the operator, who didn't talk to herself, gave me the main White House number.
Another automated menu, but this one let me connect to an operator. I asked for
the vice president's press office and was given another number. This one would
be magic, I told myself as I dialed.
A young male voice greeted me. I explained to him who I was and that I was
working on an article on exporting strong encryption technology. "I
understand the vice president recently changed his position on this issue and
I'd like to know why. Could I get some comments from him?" I asked. A
"Boy, oh, boy, I'm an intern here." An intern at the White House?
I'll leave it alone.
"I'm gonna see what I can do for you," the pleasant young man said
with a slight southern drawl. Southerners always seem so agreeable.
A few seconds later, the intern came back on the line to report that no one
was available who could help me. Could he send me to voice mail, he asked.
"No, that won't do. I'm on deadline," I replied. "I need to talk
to the vice president. Do you know where he is? Does he have a cell phone I
could try him at?"
The young man chuckled and asked me to hold. I waited six minutes and three
seconds before he came back on the line to transfer me. While I waited, I played with a paint
scraper I found.
I was transferred to a woman named Melissa, who had a much more official
voice. I gave her my spiel and stressed that I needed to talk to Mr. Gore today.
I've got a tight deadline, I told her. "I don't think you'll be able to do
that," Melissa responded. "He's in New York and he has several
"There's no way to get a hold of him? Doesn't he have a cell phone I
could reach him on?" I begged. Melissa apparently didn't sense my urgency.
"No, sorry," she replied.
"OK. Thanks," I said with obvious defeat and hung up.
I reported my progress -- or lack thereof -- to J.D. "What, our vice
president, Mr. Technology, doesn't have a cell phone?" he said in
amazement. "How much does the vice president make? Can't he afford
A short while later, J.D. came to my office with a printout showing that our
vice president's annual salary is $171,500 -- I guess the "can't afford a cell
phone" theory is out. The printout also had another number for Mr. Gore, which I
said I'd try. It ended up being a different number for the same press office I
had reached earlier.
"I think we should take up a collection for the veep, get him a cell
phone. If we raise $110, we can prepay his first month of service," J.D.
said. I went back to work, leaving the fundraising campaign up to him.
Was Melissa lying to me, I wondered? Does Al really have a cell phone and she
didn't want to give me the number? I couldn't imagine. Surely at least one
member of his entourage must have a phone at which he could be reached. Could it
be that Melissa didn't want to put me in touch with the vice president?
The clock was ticking. I couldn't immediately come up with another way to
reach Mr. Gore, so I decided to move on. My quest for his competition, George W.
Bush, Jr., was much more brief, but produced the same results. I called Bush's
campaign headquarters and asked for his press secretary, to whom they
transferred me. I made my request for an interview on exporting strong
encryption technology, offering the same sense of urgency I had given Gore's
people. Sorry, he's on the road in California and can't be reached today, the
woman told me. If the vice president doesn't have a cell phone, a governor
surely wouldn't have one, either, I thought. I didn't press for a number.
I left the political web momentarily to try to reach two actors, Cybill
Shepherd and Warren Beatty, both of whom are rumored to have aspirations for the
presidency. I wonder how they stand on this issue, I thought. My Internet search
didn't produce any useful contact information for either, so it was back to
old-fashioned 4-1-1. I assumed that they both live in Los Angeles. There was a
listing for a C. Shepherd in the area, but none for Warren Beatty. I called C.
Shepherd, asked for Cybill, but there was no one there by that name. Again, no
I continued my search for a quote on encryption technology from a
high-ranking government official. I skipped senators and congressmen and moved
on to local government. I called the New Hampshire state house to try to reach
Governor Jeanne Shaheen, but a recording told me that the offices closed at
4:30. It was 4:42. Since I don't know where she lives, I couldn't call the
governor at home.
Next stop: the mayor of the City of Nashua, Donald Davidson. The woman who
answered the phone told me that he, like the vice president, was traveling in
New York and could not be reached. "No cell phone? No way to contact him
while he's on the road?" No, she answered. But what about my deadline? What
about encryption technology? If he were in town, he would be more than happy to
help me, I was told.
Any hopes of landing the big story were now gone. I used to cover the town of
Hollis, New Hampshire -- population 5,705 -- during my years as a news reporter.
So I decided that a member of the
town's board of selectmen was my last hope. Hey, he's still a government
official. Eureka! Don Ryder was home and he's always willing to talk to me. I
don't even have to fight my way through layers of bureaucracy to get to him. We
chatted for a while before I told him of my afternoon's adventures. I begged for
"Geez, you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel here. Who's next?
We have an animal control officer in town," Don joked.
"So, Don, what do you think about exporting strong encryption
technology? How do you stand on it?" I asked.
"Well, I've never really given it any thought," he responded. He
thought about it for a minute, then answered that he thinks the technology is
going to be a necessity because of the growing international e-commerce market.
If we're going to be passing credit card numbers back and forth, other countries
should have the ability to encrypt those numbers, he said. Not being a techie, I
didn't know if Don was talking about the right kind of technology, but I
appreciated the input too much to question it.
"The thing is, if somebody makes it, somebody can break it. Many a
hacker can figure these codes out, so I don't see the harm in sharing
them," Don said.
There you go. This was the pearl of wisdom that my afternoon's search had
produced. And as far as I was concerned, it was pretty wise. So it didn't come
from the vice president or the governor or even the mayor. It came from a
selectman in a small farming community in southern New Hampshire. Who better to
quote on the issue of exporting strong encryption technology?
It's now past deadline. I'm going out for a margarita.