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White House Has No Comprehensive E-Mail Archive

A 2001 audit by the Government Accountability Office said that part of the trouble was due to problems created while maintaining and updating a custom archiving system known as the Automated Records Management System (ARMS). The system was put in place in 1994, after a federal court ruled that the White House must preserve e-mails under the Federal Records Act.

The missing Clinton White House records prompted allegations from Republicans that the administration had sought to hide the archiving problem from congressional investigators and the courts. Republicans also alleged that some of the missing correspondence may have related to the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation, a campaign finance probe of Gore and other controversies. The government eventually spent nearly $12 million to retrieve missing e-mails for congressional investigators from backup tapes.

The GAO report concluded that Gore's office "did not implement adequate records management practices to ensure that all e-mail records generated or received were preserved in accordance with applicable law and best practices."

Linda Koontz, the director of information-management issues at the GAO and the author of the 2001 report, called the trouble with ARMS "a human interaction problem . . . from what we saw there was not a problem with the system itself at that point in time."

The report noted that some presidential records "may have been irretrievably lost" because White House officials decided to write over, or "recycle," backup tapes -- a practice that the Clinton team discontinued in 1998 and 1999.

By the end of Bill Clinton's presidency, White House officials said the problems with ARMS had been solved. But shortly after Bush took office, his administration began taking steps to phase out the system.

White House technology officials proposed two different records-management systems as ARMS replacements in 2003 and 2004, but neither was adopted, according to administration documents submitted in court filings. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel would not comment on why ARMS was eliminated.

The system was never replaced, according to court records and officials. Instead, after the White House switched its e-mail software from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange in 2002, the administration chose to rely on the Microsoft software to perform archiving functions, according to a White House affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington last week.

In April, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino referenced the e-mail software change in answering a reporter's question about millions of lost e-mails alleged by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive. "I wouldn't rule out that there were a potential 5 million e-mails lost," she said. "There was no intent to have lost them."

The White House appears now to have changed its stance. "We have no reason to believe that any e-mails, at all, are missing," spokesman Tony Fratto said Thursday, before declining to answer further questions Friday.

Parties to the e-mail lawsuits question why the Bush White House chose to get rid of the ARMS system, however flawed, and not replace it with a new archive program.

Tom Blanton, who heads the National Security Archive, toured the Executive Office of the President shortly after the ARMS system was installed. When users tried to delete e-mails, an on-screen message asked whether the e-mail was of historic or evidentiary value; if the user indicated it was, it went to a repository for preservation.

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