Report: NARA doubted White House e-mail archives in 2004

As early as January 2004 the National Archives and Records Administration warned the White House that its e-mail archival method was operating at risk, and the Bush administration has yet to address those concerns, according to a report released by Democratic lawmakers today.

The document released at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee provides the most detailed public account to date of the White House’s decisions regarding its e-mail archive system — the subject of ongoing litigation and congressional inquiry.

At issue are the Bush administration’s efforts to comply with federal records laws that require its officials to preserve official communication. Two groups have sued the adminstration, alleging that up to 10 million e-mail messages from 2003 to 2005 went missing from the White House's e-mail system. Lawmakers have also been investigating senior Bush administration officials’ use of Republican National Committee e-mail accounts while in office and the failure to keep those communications as records.

At the end of each administration, records are transferred to NARA. But while the administration is in office, the Presidential Records Act, gives it records management authority.

Since the White House switched its e-mail system from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange in 2002, it has relied primarily on the manual process called “journaling” in which e-mail messages are manually named and saved as .pst files on White House servers.

The chairman’s report notes that Carlos Solari, who was the White House Office of Administration’s chief information officer until 2005, this month told committee staff members that the approach was meant to be a temporary, short-term situation.

“It’s our view that the journaling function is not the ideal,” Gary Stern, NARA’s general counsel, said at the hearing.

In 2003 the White House began work on a new e-mail archiving system called the Electronic Communications Records Management System. Although the system was largely completed when Solari left office in 2005, it was scuttled in October 2006 by Chief Information Officer Theresa Payton, who cited concerns about the system’s ability to distinguish between personal, political and presidential records and how long it would take to implement.

“We know that we want to move to a newer platform, however you have to make do with what you have,” Payton said at the hearing.

Payton also said she believed that any e-mail messages missing from the White House’s e-mail archive could be recreated by using the Office of Administration’s disaster recovery backup tapes, although the process could cost millions of dollars.

Similar problems plagued the Clinton administration’s Automated Records Management System, which eventually resulted in the White House to spend $11 million to reconstruct 200,000 e-mail messages.

Steven McDevitt, a former senior White House official who worked in the CIO’s office from September 2002 to 2006, described the problems that he saw with the current e-mail system in written responses to lawmakers’ questions last week. The White House reviewed his answers.

McDevitt described the risks that managers in the CIO’s office were discussing in early 2003, which included concerns that the current system would produce incomplete data and that .pst files could not be reconciled with original data, in addition to worries about public perception and the ability of the .pst-based system to ensure user accountability.

He also said that the office became aware in October 2005 that some e-mail files were not being properly managed, the .pst files were scattered across various EOP servers and there was no well-documented process. McDevitt also went into detail regarding a 250-page analysis of the e-mail system that he and his team did a t t h e time. It identified up to 1,000 days of missing e-mail for various White House components.

Republican members of the committee questioned McDevitt’s motivations and Democratic lawmakers’ decision to include them in the record because he was not one of the six witnesses that the committee's staff members interviewed in person.

“In his opinion, 400-plus days of White House e-mails went missing, but this sensational charge is not supported by the evidence that we have,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “Through the course of the investigation we’ve learned that many of these so-called missing e-mails were simply misfiled.”

Payton told lawmakers the White House is still reviewing the extent to which any e-mail may be missing and reiterated her concerns about the veracity of the 2005 study led by McDevitt. She said her office is in the second stage of its study and has 17 million e-mail messages that it has yet to attribute to a specific component.

Allen Weinstein, the U.S. archivist, told the panel he was concerned about the possibility of any missing e-mail as NARA prepares to receive the Bush administration’s records and that he was awaiting Payton’s findings.

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