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White House Has No Comprehensive E-Mail Archive

"But that has disappeared, and as far as I know there's no apparent system," Blanton said. Instead, the White House has looked to a separate system of emergency backup tapes as an archive, he said. But the administration did not begin to preserve those tapes until after October 2003, according to one of its affidavits.

Theresa Payton, chief information officer in the President's Office of Administration, indicated in an affidavit last week that the White House relies on two systems to store electronic messages: an archive that is part of its e-mail software and the backup tapes, which are designed to help restore computer records after a disaster.

Backup tapes, several computer experts said, are no substitute for a comprehensive records-management system.

"Disaster recovery is not the same thing as records retention," said Eugene Spafford, a professor of computer science and engineering at Purdue University. Spafford said backup tapes do not preserve all the e-mails generated in a day because they record a "snapshot" of a network that includes only the e-mails present at a given moment. The tape does not record those e-mails created and deleted between daily backups, he said, and besides, "You can have inadvertent failures . . . or individuals can purposely destroy contents or edit contents."

The GAO's Koontz agreed that backup tapes are "not meant to keep the e-mails that you need to keep in perpetuity or for whatever period in time you're required to keep them." Government offices, she said, are "supposed to put things in a record-keeping system."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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