Congress to Bush: You've Lost Mail

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 1:30 PM

The Bush White House has made a mockery of the Presidential Records Act and its requirement that official White House records -- including e-mails -- be preserved for posterity.

At a congressional hearing yesterday, it became clear for the first time that top White House officials knowingly adopted a new e-mail system in 2002 that was riddled with technical problems that not only risked data loss but could easily be exploited by those who wished to keep their e-mails from public scrutiny. We've known for a while that a lot of White House e-mails, by some accounts numbering in the millions, are missing and have possibly been erased. Yesterday's discovery raises the question of whether that happened by accident -- or by design. And the White House's unhurried approach to addressing the problem is hardly reassuring.

Similarly, we already knew that Karl Rove and many of his colleagues routinely used Republican National Committee e-mail accounts for official business over a period of years, thereby avoiding any archiving process whatsoever. But House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman made the startling announcement yesterday that the RNC has not tried -- and has no intention of trying -- to restore any of those e-mails.

In addition to the many detailed questions prompted by yesterday's hearing, there is one overarching issue: Can White House officials coast all the way to Jan. 20 without being exposed in such a way that the press and the public take full notice of what they've done?

At least when it comes to the e-mail scandal, there are signs they can. The coverage today was muted at best.

Reason to Be Suspicious

Here is the report from the Democratic committee staff issued yesterday. Its main bullet points:

-- "The White House has not had a reliable system for preserving White House e-mails since 2002, when the White House made the decision to stop using the Automatic Records Management System (ARMS) used by the Clinton White House." This despite repeated warnings to that effect from technologists inside the White House and from officials at the National Archives.

-- "Until mid-2005, the system that the White House used for preserving e-mails had serious security flaws." This meant that White House aides could potentially have viewed, changed and/or erased their own or others' ostensibly secure e-mail archives.

-- "The White House has refused to cooperate with efforts by the National Archives to ensure the preservation of White House e-mails."

-- "The process of recovering missing e-mails from RNC servers and White House back-up tapes has not begun."

At yesterday's hearing, two officials from the White House's Office of Administration expressed confidence that the e-mails were not really missing. They said that all e-mails should have been captured by the ad hoc "journaling system" adopted after the White House changed e-mail programs. And they insisted that, in the worst-case scenario, they could always get the missing e-mails off their backup tapes.

But an anecdote in the report belies that confidence. There's been exactly one previous attempt to find and restore missing e-mails. It took place in late 2005 and early 2006, after special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald subpoenaed the White House for e-mails related to the leak of Valerie Plame's identity. White House officials found that several days' worth of e-mails from the vice president's office were missing in their entirety. After several failed attempts, officials did finally manage to find some e-mails, there's no reason to believe they found all of them.

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