WASHINGTON — E-mail spam, that scourge of cyberspace that clogs your electronic in-box with unwanted mail about everything from get-rich-quick schemes to hard-core pornography, has invaded the presidential campaign.
The FBI is investigating a series of unusual electronic attacks that have sent millions of unauthorized e-mails to people as far away as Britain from sources claiming to represent a Web site operated by the Republican National Committee.
The spam attacks--and the scrutiny they are drawing from official Washington--underscore the powerful role the Internet has begun to play in national politics as it moves into the mainstream of American life.
It also highlights the risks faced by politicians--who ask voters to trust them and believe in their message--when they embrace pass-the-word marketing strategies employed by scrappy dot-com companies trying to quickly catapult into the ranks of the Fortune 500.
"Politicians have to be very careful about offending the electorate," said David M. Anderson, task force director of the Democracy Online Project at George Washington University. "For commercial marketers, if you get 2% or 3% of the people you contact to buy a product and offend the other 98%, you've done well. But if you are a politician and you offend 2% or 3% of voters, you could lose the election."
But the biggest issue raised by the spam attacks is the mystery of how--and why--they happened. No one has claimed responsibility. Even the company that runs the Web site says it does not know how the e-mails made their way, not to George W. Bush supporters who are on their mailing lists, but to Democrats and independents who might take offense.
An RNC spokesman denied that the organization is behind the dissemination of the unauthorized e-mails, which contain a pitch from committee Chairman Jim Nicholson. In the letter, Nicholson urges recipients to show their support for Texas Gov. Bush by signing up for more information at a Web site: http://www.echampions2000.com.
ClickAction Inc., a Palo Alto-based company that operates the Republican Web site, denied that it had authorized the use of the site to send out spam e-mails.
"We did not send these e-mails and in no way condone" their transmission, said Dan Flanegan, a senior product manager at ClickAction.
Flanegan said company officials have been in contact with the FBI and several Internet service providers to get to the bottom of the mystery attacks. The FBI declined comment, but company and other experts said the Justice Department probably is seeking to determine whether those responsible for sending the unsolicited e-mails have committed fraud or violated federal elections laws.
ClickAction established the echampions2000.com Web page in September and used banner advertisements to encourage voters to sign up for regular updates about the Bush campaign. The company also encouraged visitors to the Web site to forward e-mail solicitations to "as many friends" as possible.
But company officials said that they did not envision someone using the site to annoy voters with unwanted mail. RNC spokesman Terry Holt pointed a finger at the Democrats.
"This is the last few days of a political campaign and all bets are off. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who did this," said Holt, accusing the Gore campaign.
Officials of the Gore campaign declined to comment, expressing concern that publicly commenting might make their candidate the target of a similar ploy.
Eric Fagan, a computer systems administrator for Cox Communications in Las Vegas, first noticed that his network had been hit by the echampions2000.com e-mail last week when he began getting complaints from subscribers to Cox's high-speed Internet access.
"We tracked our problem down to a dial-up Internet account in Los Angeles that was resending the mail. . . . It's hard to say exactly what triggered" the mailings, Fagan said. "It could be an extremist Republican person or it could have been a malcontent trying to discredit the Republicans or make them look bad because a lot of these e-mails went to Democrats and Libertarians--people who are clearly not interested in the message."
Several unsolicited echampions2000.com e-mails even found their way to London, to nonpublished e-mail addresses maintained by The Register, an online news publication.
"I don't know why they were sent; no one here is registered to vote" in the election, said John Lettice, an editor of the Web site.
Indeed, experts say politicians should be especially wary of casting their political message wide and far or asking supporters to do so on their behalf.