Someone is reading Tonya's mail LILLEHAMMER '94

February 25, 1994|By John Husar | John Husar,Chicago Tribune

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- In what was described as a "stupid, foolish mistake," perhaps as many as 100 American journalists peeked into Tonya Harding's private electronic mailbox at the Olympics.

No one claimed to have read any of Harding's mail, or used the information in any way.

"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing after we got back from having pizza at 2 a.m.," said Michelle Kaufman of the Detroit Free Press, one of the few who openly acknowledged looking into Harding's mailbox. "Someone said they heard this was Tonya's code and we wondered if it would work."

The electronic information system is available to all members of the so-called "Olympic family" -- athletes, coaches, journalists, officials. It contains routinely updated reports on sports, weather, transportation, press conferences and general news, as well as a method of sending and receiving messages.

Privacy is protected by two codes. To enter a mailbox, a user types his or her Olympic accreditation number, followed by a "secret" password. Until the user establishes a different password, the International Olympic Committee temporarily assigns the user's birthdate as the code.

In this case, Harding's accreditation number was retrieved from an enlarged photo of her wearing an Olympic ID tag. It then became easy for anyone to locate her birthdate from reams of official publicity.

Kaufman said she and a few others found that the code did gain access to Harding's mailbox. A sign reported 68 unread messages for Harding.

"But we never opened any messages," Kaufman said. "There were none sent under her name. We made a joke -- something about her not being smart enough to figure out how to get to her mail -- and closed the file and walked away. It couldn't have lasted for more than a minute."

Ann Killion of the San Jose Mercury News and Jere Longman of the New York Times also were in the group. Each denied reading any messages.

"I'm not saying it was right," Kaufman said. "Looking back on it, I would not do it again."

Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of the Miami Herald, said he was outraged that anyone would question the ethics of the journalists.

"I'll bet you 100 people did it," Barry said. "This is being held up as some kind of a criminal thing, when in fact it's no different than a reporter reading someone's mail upside down on a desk. You don't necessarily use that kind of information."

Asked if he had peeked himself, Barry said, "Yes, I did. I did exactly that. And many, many others did."

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