Report: Warnings about e-mails went unheeded in Bush White House

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 8:06 PM

Top aides to President George W. Bush seemed unconcerned amid multiple warnings as early as 2002 that the White House risked losing millions of e-mails that federal law required them to preserve, according to an extensive review of records set for release Monday.

The review, conducted by the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, follows a settlement reached last December between President Obama's administration, CREW and the National Security Archive, a George Washington University research institute. The groups sued the Bush White House in 2007, alleging it violated federal law by not preserving millions of e-mails sent between 2003 and 2005.

The settlement resulted in the restoration of 94 days worth of e-mail and the release of documents detailing when the Bush White House learned of the missing e-mails and how it responded. The restored e-mails are part of the National Archives and Records Administration's historic record of the Bush administration, but presidential historians and others seeking information in the coming decades about the major decisions of Bush's presidency likely will be starved of key details, including messages sent between White House officials and drafts of final policy decisions, according to CREW.

"The net effect of this is we've probably lost some truly valuable records that would have provided insight" into the administration's decision-making process on several policy issues, said CREW Chief Counsel Anne L. Weismann, who led the review.

Problems first arose when an e-mail record-keeping system established during Bill Clinton's presidency failed to archive messages sent by the Bush White House as it started converting e-mail accounts from Lotus Notes to the Microsoft Exchange program, the report said.

The White House's Administration Office warned top Bush officials about the glitch and potential loss of e-mails but were ordered to continue with the conversion, the report said.

"It wasn't like it was a one-time event and they went out and fixed it," said CREW senior counsel Adam Rappaport.

The Administration Office later proposed a plan to fully restore the missing e-mails in 2005, but White House counsel Harriet E. Miers rejected the plan, according to the report. Miers did not return requests for comment.

In the end, the Bush White House spent at least $10 million to develop new electronic records management systems that restored just 48 days worth of e-mail, the report said.

Missing e-mails included messages from the months preceding the start of the Iraq war and messages sent by Vice President Dick Cheney's office that were later sought by the Justice Department as part of its investigation into the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA spy.

Scott Stanzel, a former Bush spokesman, said CREW is a liberal group that "likes to sue for sport and for years has tried to create a spooky conspiracy out of standard IT issues."

"Nearly two years after President Bush left office, their interest in launching partisan attacks through misleading press releases has not waned," Stanzel said. "The Bush Administration has complied with the Presidential Records Act requirements and this matter is closed, yet CREW's tiresome effort to score political points continues."

Although the Bush administration has been a frequent target of CREW's efforts, the organization was also critical of several government-funded projects constructed in the district of former Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), has called for the resignation of embattled Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and has accused South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Alvin M. Greene of violating election laws.

The Justice Department declined to comment on CREW's report or the December settlement. The Obama administration established an automated e-mail records-keeping system as part of the settlement. The system automatically captures and preserves all e-mails sent from computers and mobile BlackBerry devices, controls against the unauthorized deletion of e-mails and generates audits of ongoing archival activities, the White House said.

The Obama White House prohibits administration officials from using personal e-mail accounts to conduct official business. White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin was sanctioned this year for using his personal e-mail address to discuss policy issues with colleagues at his former employer, Google. The White House has rebuffed requests from congressional Republicans to speak with McLaughlin and other officials about the matter.

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