Report Finds Gaps in Federal E-Mail Records

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Federal officials inconsistently preserve government e-mail, creating gaps in the public record and making it difficult for the public to understand the activities of the government, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office yesterday.

The report came before a scheduled House vote today on a bill that would create standards for the electronic storage of e-mail by federal agencies.

As the use of e-mail has increased dramatically, federal agencies are struggling to determine which e-mails can be deleted, which must be preserved as public records and how those records should be stored.

Current law gives agencies broad discretion to determine how electronic records and communications are maintained. Quality varies widely, according to the GAO.

Investigators looked at four agencies -- the Homeland Security Department, the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- and found that all used an inefficient and insecure process of "print and file": printing e-mails and storing them in paper form. Only one agency, the EPA, was converting to an electronic system to store e-mail records.

The GAO examined electronic records kept by 15 senior officials at the four agencies and found that seven complied with all federal requirements governing the preservation of electronic records, but eight did not consistently meet them.

Meanwhile, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the federal agency charged with ensuring that other departments properly store e-mail, stopped making inspections shortly after President Bush took office in 2000, the report said.

The legislation to be considered today would require the national archivist to regularly inspect record-keeping systems at every agency and the White House and certify that they comply with the law.

"This will impose upon government agencies to put in place a system to keep track of their e-mails and be able to retrieve them," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been investigating the disappearance of years' worth of e-mails generated by the Bush White House.

"This bill sets out the opportunities for a periodic review of whether agencies are complying with the law, so we don't find out at the end of an administration that records are missing," Waxman said.

The White House's electronic record-keeping system is the subject of several lawsuits. In one court filing, the White House acknowledged that from 2001 until late 2003, it transferred e-mails to backup tapes and routinely "recycled" them, resulting in the purging of the e-mails. The administration has said it does not know how many of those overwritten e-mails can be retrieved and preserved.

During that period, the administration faced some of its biggest controversies, including the Iraq war, the leak of former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson's identity and the CIA's destruction of interrogation videotapes.

Last year, the White House said additional e-mails concerning official government business may have been lost because they were improperly sent through private accounts intended for only political activity. White House aides, including former presidential adviser Karl Rove, used e-mail accounts issued by the Republican National Committee to communicate about government business.

Although it has sponsored six studies of agency record-keeping since 2003, the National Archives has not conducted any inspections since 2000, the GAO report found. "Without a consistent oversight program that provides it with a governmentwide perspective, NARA has limited assurance that agencies are appropriately managing the records in their custody, increasing the risk that important records will be lost," the GAO said.

Officials at the National Archives told GAO investigators that inspections took too much time and money. Instead, they chose to inspect only when they learned of a clear and egregious record-keeping problem. No record-keeping challenges have reached that level in the past eight years, archives officials said.

The archives also seriously curtailed its "targeted assistance" -- help it provides agencies to improve their records processes. In 2002, it completed 76 such projects; last year there were none.

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