Those Missing E-Mails

Monday, February 11, 2008

WITH EACH passing week, the fate of e-mails generated by President Bush's staff grows more curious and troubling. While evidence has not emerged of a deliberate effort by the White House to destroy sensitive electronic messages, there's reason to be concerned about the potential loss of historical records.

In response to specific allegations of missing e-mails by two groups accusing the Bush administration of violating the Federal Records Act, spokeswoman Dana Perino said last April, "I wouldn't rule out that there were a potential 5 million e-mails lost." But deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said, "We have no reason to believe that any e-mails, at all, are missing." Another spokesman, Scott Stanzel, told us that he doesn't see an inconsistency in the two remarks. That may be, but given the administration's obsession with secrecy, the seeming discrepancy has fed the suspicion it's hiding something.

What has Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) calling for hearings is a 2005 internal White House memo that reported 473 days of e-mails missing between 2003 and 2005 from a number of executive branch offices. Bush spokespersons question its veracity, and according to a court affidavit "an independent effort" is underway to determine what happened. Some of the dates of the purported missing e-mails raise eyebrows. There are reportedly no archived messages the week after the capture of Saddam Hussein, and there are none over four days in early October 2003 from Vice President Cheney's office. That happens to correspond to the start of the Justice Department probe into the Valerie Plame leak case.

But perspective is needed. According to the National Archives, missing e-mails are not unusual. The agency says that about 500,000 messages combined from the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were determined by a court not to be complete. Some involved the Iran-Contra scandal. In Bill Clinton's administration, 2 million e-mails disappeared, which his Republican inquisitors thought might have contained information about former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and a campaign finance investigation of Clinton vice president Al Gore. In reality, technical glitches with the Automated Records Management System (ARMS), created in 1994 in response to a 1989 lawsuit, caused the archival failure. The missing Reagan, Bush and Clinton e-mails and information were recovered from backup tapes.

Continued problems with ARMS led the Bush administration to scrap it. Between 2002 and 2004, it switched from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook and now uses the archive function in Microsoft Exchange. Also, the practice of recycling disaster recovery tapes ended in October 2003. Now all the tapes are kept. But because the tapes are merely snapshots of the e-mail system, there could be serious gaps in the information saved between snapshots.

All this leads to our overriding concern: preservation of the historical record. Each missing e-mail is one less piece of the puzzle of how policies are made and decisions are reached. In an ideal world, the National Archives would have more than an advisory role in how records are handled during a president's term. An attempt to give it some authority could set up a fight between the legislative and executive branches. When it comes to preserving the nation's history, that's a battle worth waging.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company