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White House Says It Routinely Overwrote E-Mail Tapes From 2001 to 2003

By Elizabeth Williamson and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 17, 2008

E-mail messages sent and received by White House personnel during the first three years of the Bush administration were routinely recorded on tapes that were "recycled," the White House's chief information officer said in a court filing this week.

During the period in question, the Bush presidency faced some of its biggest controversies, including the Iraq war, the leak of former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson's name and the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said he has no reason to believe any e-mails were deliberately destroyed.

From 2001 to October 2003, the White House's practice was to use the same backup tape each day to copy new as well as old e-mails, he said, making it possible that some of those e-mails could still be recovered even from a tape that was repeatedly overwritten. "We are continuing to analyze our systems," Fratto said last night.

The court filing said tapes were recycled before October 2003, and at that point, the White House "began preserving and storing all backup tapes."

Two federal statutes require presidential communications, including e-mails involving senior White House aides, to be preserved for the nation's historical record, and some historians responded to the court disclosure yesterday by urging that the White House's actions be thoroughly probed.

"There certainly could have been hugely important materials there . . . and of course they're not owned by President Bush or anybody in the administration, they're owned by the public," said presidential historian and author Robert Dallek. "Given how secretive this administration has been, it of course fans the flames and suspicions about what has been destroyed here. I hope we'll get an investigation."

The White House's electronic record-keeping system has been under scrutiny for months by congressional Democrats and is the subject of several lawsuits, one of which prompted the latest disclosures. The administration has previously acknowledged problems with the White House archiving system, but until Tuesday had not disclosed its practice of recycling backup tapes before 2003.

Although the White House said in the filing that its practice of recording over the tapes ceased after October 2003, it added that even some e-mails transmitted through the end of 2005 might not have been fully preserved. "At this stage, this office does not know" whether additional e-mails are missing, said the affidavit filed minutes before a court-ordered deadline of midnight Tuesday night by Theresa Payton, chief information officer in the White House Office of Administration.

The White House disclosure was filed with the D.C. District Court in response to a lawsuit filed by two advocacy groups, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive, which alleged that millions of e-mail messages sent between 2003 and 2005 are missing from White House servers.

CREW filed the lawsuit after a confidential informant asserted that an undisclosed study by the White House Office of Administration concluded that e-mails involving certain officials were missing from particular days in that period. The lawsuit was primarily meant to force the White House to release a copy of the study.

Payton's affidavit confirmed that a chart prepared by an official whom she did not name "appears to have concluded" that White House records contain no e-mails from certain days or a "lower-than-expected" number on certain days. She said her office has "so far been unable to replicate its results or affirm the correctness of the assumptions underlying it."

Accordingly, she said, "this office has serious reservations about the reliability" of the study. A new study of the matter is underway, Payton said.

Since the controversy arose, the White House has acknowledged that some of its e-mails may be missing but that it is unsure how many because officials are still investigating possible "anomalies" in the records. Payton said in her affidavit that the recycling of backup tapes was "consistent with industry best practices related to tape media management."

Payton, who said she oversees the computer system relied on by 3,000 "users and customers" in the presidential and vice presidential offices, said the backup tape system was created to preserve records in case of a disaster. She did not cite any other federal agencies subject to records preservation requirements that routinely recycle such tapes.

Anne L. Weismann, chief counsel for the ethics group, said the disclosure raises new questions about the Bush administration's management of public records. "They didn't have what any archival person would consider to be an electronic record-keeping system," Weismann said. "These are not the steps of a White House committed to preserving records or meeting its obligations under the law."

Fratto criticized the plaintiffs for making "inflammatory" accusations. He said that "I don't know what the specific reason was" for changing the tape retention routine in October 2003, but he noted "that was around the time of" the Plame investigation, when the White House was told to produce internal e-mails relevant to the probe. He also emphasized that for the period after October 2003, White House "technical people cannot conclude based on that document that any e-mails are missing."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) told the National Archives in a letter last month that White House officials had told his investigators they found "numerous days with few or no emails for certain White House components" during a 2005 review of White House computer servers.

"More than two years after this problem was first discovered by White House staff," Waxman said, "the White House still has not identified the cause of the problem, determined the volume of emails lost, or developed a plan for restoring those emails that were lost."

In a related controversy, House investigators have determined that hundreds of thousands of e-mails from former presidential adviser Karl Rove and other White House aides are missing because they were sent using external accounts set up by the Republican National Committee.

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