Email Points the Finger

25 Apr ’05

It’s trite now to say that email has become the prosecutor’s best friend – e-discovery is well advanced, practitioners are experienced in dealing with it, and there is a large and sophisticated industry in IT support in this area. Christina Cavanagh and I discussed some examples of this in a Globe article she wrote in January of last year.

Still, one constantly sees people writing the darndest things in email. Today, two stories of note. First, this little gem about Merck openly (in company email) plotting, it would seem, to suppress from the US FDA medical evidence that cast Vioxx in an unfavourable light:

In 2000, amid rising concerns that its painkiller Vioxx posed heart risks, Merck overruled one of its own scientists after he suggested that a patient in a clinical trial had probably died of a heart attack.

In an e-mail exchange about Vioxx, the company’s most important new drug at the time, a senior Merck scientist repeatedly urged the researcher to change his views about the death “so that we don’t raise concerns.” In later reports to the Food and Drug Administration and in a paper published in 2003, Merck listed the cause of death as “unknown” for the patient, a 73-year-old woman.


Second, email exchanges concerning John Bolton, the Bush Administration’s controversial nominee as Ambassador to the UN, have been provided to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and are causing, how you say, a firestorm. Bolton’s nomination has bogged down in controversy over his seemingly erratic and (some have said) inhumane management style, and the released emails seem to support that contention:

The declassified e-mail messages suggest animosity between Mr. Bolton and his staff on the one hand, and intelligence analysts on the other, at levels even greater than have emerged from recent public testimony by Mr. Bolton and others. A Congressional official provided some of the messages to The New York Times, saying they should be made available to the public because they had been declassified.

None of the dozens of messages reviewed by The New York Times were from Mr. Bolton. But the correspondence, spanning a period from February to September 2002, included e-mail sent to Mr. Bolton by his principal assistant, Frederick Fleitz, as well as extensive exchanges between Mr. Fleitz and Christian P. Westermann, the State Department’s top expert on biological weapons who clashed sharply with Mr. Bolton over Cuba.

The messages included a Sept. 25, 2002 note in which Thomas Fingar, the No. 2 official in the State Department intelligence branch, deplored what he said had been the toll inflicted on Mr. Westermann by Mr. Bolton and Mr. Fleitz.

“I am dismayed and disgusted that unwarranted personal attacks are affecting you in this way,” Mr. Fingar said in a message sent to Mr. Westermann. Two days earlier, in another message, Mr. Westermann wrote to Mr. Fingar to say that “personal attacks, harassment and impugning of my integrity” by Mr. Bolton and Mr. Fleitz were “now affecting my work, my health and dedication to public service.”

The correspondence provided to the Senate committee also includes a Feb. 12 message sent to Mr. Bolton by Mr. Fleitz, who disparages what he calls the “already cleared (wimpy) language on Cuba” that Mr. Westermann had recommended be used by Mr. Bolton in his planned speech. It made clear that Mr. Westermann had proposed language that reiterated existing, consensus assessments by American intelligence agencies, rather than the stronger assertions that Mr. Bolton had been pressing to make about possible efforts by Cuba to obtain biological weapons, which Mr. Bolton contended were borne out by some highly classified intelligence reports.

In any event, once again, it’s email “J’Accuse!” …

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