White House Has No Comprehensive E-Mail Archive
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
For years, the Bush administration has relied on an inadequate archiving system for storing the millions of e-mails sent through White House servers, despite court orders and statutes requiring the preservation of such records, according to documents and technical experts.
President Bush's White House early on scrapped a custom archiving system that the Clinton administration had adopted under a federal court order. From 2001 to 2003, the Bush White House also recorded over computer backup tapes that provided a last line of defense for preserving e-mails, even though a similar practice landed the Clinton administration in legal trouble.
As a result, several years' worth of electronic communication may have been lost, potentially including e-mails documenting administration actions in the run-up to the Iraq war.
White House officials said last week that they have "no reason to believe" that any e-mails were deliberately destroyed or are missing. But over the past year, they have acknowledged problems with archiving, saving and finding e-mails dating from early in the administration until at least 2005.
The administration's e-mail policies have been repeatedly challenged by lawmakers and open-government groups, in congressional hearings and in court. Two groups, the National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, have accused the White House in lawsuits of violating the Federal Records Act because of what they say is its failure to preserve millions of e-mails, a charge the White House rejects.
The White House's record-keeping problems have thrown new attention on a gap in statutory language covering the retention of presidential records.
"If it is a presidential record, then it does need to be retained. It doesn't matter what the format is -- e-mails can be records," said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives and Records Administration. But the agency has no power to intervene if an administration is not preserving presidential records, inadvertently or not, Cooper said.
The law governing nonpresidential federal records is stronger. The National Archives can demand an explanation from any federal agency that it suspects is mishandling records, and it can request a Justice Department probe. Private parties can sue to force compliance with federal records laws, but not the presidential-records statute.
Controversy surrounding the Bush administration's policies intensified on Thursday, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released details of a briefing by White House special counsel Emmet T. Flood, in which he disclosed that a 2005 White House study had identified 473 separate days in which no electronic messages were stored for one or more component offices.
In the presidential offices, for example, not a single e-mail was archived on Dec. 17, 20 or 21 in 2003 -- the week after the capture of Saddam Hussein. According to the study summary that the committee released, e-mails were not archived for Vice President Cheney's office on four days in early October 2003, coinciding with the start of a Justice Department probe into the leak of a CIA officer's identity, which later led to criminal charges against Cheney's chief of staff.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), has scheduled a Feb. 15 hearing to inquire about the gaps.
The current e-mail controversy carries echoes from a scandal that rocked the Clinton administration a decade ago, when GOP-led congressional probes found that hundreds of thousands of White House e-mails had been lost, primarily involving the office of then-Vice President Al Gore.