Group files motion to preserve e-mail backup tapes

A government watchdog group that says the Bush administration has illegally discarded 5 million e-mail messages since 2003 has filed a motion to ensure that backup tapes of the messages are preserved.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) requested a temporary restraining order today in support of the lawsuit it filed last month against the Executive Office of the President, the White House’s Office of Administration, and the National Archives and Records Administration. The lawsuit alleges that the Bush administration failed to “recover, restore and preserve certain electronic communications created and/or received within the White House.” It asks that the missing messages be restored using the backup tapes and that the administration implement a new “adequate electronic management system.”

Since its inception in 2003 the watchdog group has made a name for itself by leveling corruption-related charges on several high-profile Republican politicians and it publishes an annual report “Beyond Delay,” which lists what it considers to be the most corrupt members of Congress.

George Washington University’s National Security Archive, which collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, filed a similar lawsuit in early September.

The White House said the administration is preserving what messages it had as of the date the lawsuit was filed, said Anne Weismann, CREW’s chief counsel. The group says that is not good enough.

“The reason that we’ve asked for this preservation is that we’re saying should we prevail in this lawsuit, we want the court to be able to award effective relief,” Weismann said. “If the White House goes ahead and destroys all the backup tapes, then our ability to get relief is gone, and these tapes are not just for us, they are a part of American history.”

The White House did not return calls for comment on today’s filing. In April, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she believed the backup tapes existed and that there were ways to retrieve the messages if they were gone.

CREW’s lawsuit also targets NARA for failing to step in and ensure that the messages, sent from White House e-mail accounts, were preserved. A NARA spokeswoman said the agency could not comment because the case is ongoing.

CREW also sued, in a previous lawsuit, to get access to documents it believes the Office of Administration has detailing the extent of the missing e-mail messages and a recovery plan. The office has said it is not subject to FOIA, Weismann said.

A decision on the temporary restraining order is expected within days.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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