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White House Study Found 473 Days of E-Mail Gone

By Dan Eggen and Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 18, 2008

The White House possesses no archived e-mail messages for many of its component offices, including the Executive Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President, for hundreds of days between 2003 and 2005, according to the summary of an internal White House study that was disclosed yesterday by a congressional Democrat.

The 2005 study -- whose credibility the White House attacked this week -- identified 473 separate days in which no electronic messages were stored for one or more White House offices, said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).

Waxman said he decided to release the summary after White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday that there is "no evidence" that any White House e-mails from those years are missing. Fratto's assertion "seems to be an unsubstantiated statement that has no relation to the facts they have shared with us," Waxman said.

The competing claims were the latest salvos in an escalating dispute over whether the Bush administration has complied with long-standing statutory requirements to preserve official White House records -- including those reflecting potentially sensitive policy discussions -- for history and in case of any future legal demands.

Waxman said he is seeking testimony on the issue at a hearing next month from White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, National Archivist Allen Weinstein and Alan R. Swendiman, the politically appointed director of the Office of Administration, which produced the 2005 study at issue.

Another official in that office on Tuesday challenged the study's credibility in a court affidavit, contending that current White House employees have been unable to confirm the veracity of the analysis or to recreate its findings. Waxman's disclosure provides the first details about the study's findings.

The White House is required by law to preserve e-mails considered presidential or federal records, and it is the target of several lawsuits seeking information about missing data and efforts to preserve electronic communications.

The internal study found that for Bush's executive office, no e-mails were archived on 12 separate days between December 2003 and February 2004, Waxman said. Vice President Cheney's office showed no electronic messages on 16 occasions from September 2003 to May 2005.

Archived e-mails were missing from even more days in other parts of the White House, the analysis found. The Council on Environmental Quality and the Council of Economic Advisers, for example, showed no stored e-mails for 2 1/2 months beginning in November 2003. The Office of Management and Budget showed no messages for 59 days -- including the period from Nov. 1, 2003, to Dec. 9, 2003 -- and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative showed no e-mail for 73 days.

The administration has so far refused to release the study and a number of documents related to it, including a large summary chart used in a closed-door briefing conducted for Waxman and other lawmakers last September by Emmet T. Flood, special counsel to the president.

The briefers took the chart with them when they left, Waxman said, but committee staffers had copied many of the details.

Waxman described the findings in a letter to Fielding, which he released. "Mr. Fratto's statements have added to the considerable confusion that exists regarding the status of White House efforts to preserve e-mails," Waxman's letter said.

Two advocacy groups suing the Bush administration over its e-mail policies, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive, also said yesterday that the White House's new statements are incomplete and contrary to earlier acknowledgments that some e-mails are missing.

CREW also asserted in court papers filed yesterday that "critical and highly relevant evidence may have been destroyed" by the White House.

The group's chief counsel, Anne Weismann, said the chart referenced in Waxman's letter corresponded to information from an informant who contacted the group and described nearly 500 days between 2003 and 2005 when no e-mails from several White House offices were archived.

Weismann said the source further described many more days during the same period when the volume of archived e-mail was unusually low. "The example I was given is that the average volumes per day in the White House office, for example, was 60,000 to 100,000, yet there were entire weeks when it was as low as five a day," she said.

Fratto said yesterday that "we tried to reconstruct some of the work . . . and could not replicate that or could not authenticate the correctness of the data in that chart." In an e-mailed response to questions, he also said the e-mails in question may exist on backup tapes that are separate from the archival system.

Theresa Payton, chief information officer in the White House Office of Administration, also said in her court affidavit that her office has "serious reservations about the reliability of the chart" and has "so far been unable to replicate its results or to affirm the correctness of the assumptions underlying it."

Payton also disclosed that e-mail backup tapes were routinely "recycled" during the first three years of the Bush administration. The White House stopped the practice in October 2003, when it "began preserving and storing all back-up tapes," Payton said.

Technology experts say recycled data is often impossible to recover, especially if the tapes have been written over repeatedly, raising the possibility that some e-mails could be gone forever.

The special counsel who oversaw the investigation of the Valerie Plame Wilson CIA leak case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, wrote in a letter to defense counsel in January 2006 that some e-mail in the offices of Bush and Cheney was not preserved through "the normal archiving process" in 2003.

When asked yesterday about a previous statement by White House spokeswoman Dana Perino that some White House e-mails are indeed missing, Fratto demurred. "I'm not sure what was said on that," he said. "I could tell you today, though, that we have no evidence and we have no way of showing that any e-mail at all are missing."

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