White House discloses details of e-mail backup system

The Bush administration has told a federal court that it has backup media that “should contain substantially all e-mail” that is the subject of ongoing litigation alleging that officials illegally deleted millions of e-mail messages. But the groups suing the White House disagree that the tapes contain the messages in question.

Although the White House has backup media from October 2003 onward, officials said that, "consistent with industry best practices," they recycled the backup tapes used from March to October 2003, a period that included the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The revelation came in answers that White House officials provided Jan. 15 to a series of questions from a federal magistrate who is weighing whether to grant a request from George Washington University's National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) — the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The groups allege that the Bush administration failed to meet legal obligations under the Presidential Records Act by not preserving millions of e-mail messages sent and received from 2003 to 2005.

The plaintiffs want the court to force White House officials to install a new electronic records management system similar to the one they discontinued when they changed e-mail servers from IBM Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange in 2002. The recent answers provide insight into the backup system the White House has used since 2003.

In the administration’s response, Theresa Payton, chief information officer in the Executive Office of the President’s Office of Administration, said that since October 2003, the White House has preserved and stored all backup tapes. She said the CIO’s office did not know if any messages were not properly preserved in the archiving process but that officials are seeking to determine if there were anomalies for any dates from 2003 to 2005.

Meredith Fuchs, the National Security Archive’s general counsel, said the account represents a departure from what White House officials have said in the past regarding the missing e-mail messages.

“The White House seems to be changing its story,” Fuchs said. “At first, it acknowledged over 5 million missing e-mails. Now it says it ‘has undertaken an independent effort to determine whether there may be anomalies in Exchange e-mail counts’ during the 2003 to 2005 period.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) sent a letter to the White House in August stating that Keith Roberts, who at the time was deputy general counsel at the Office of Administration, told the staff of Waxman’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee last May that “the White House had discovered in 2005 that an unknown number of e-mails may not have been preserved in the White House archive, as required by the Presidential Records Act.”

Waxman addressed the letter to Fred Fielding, counsel to the president. According to Waxman, Roberts said the CIO office then conducted a review of the e-mail system to determine the scope of the potential loss. Waxman also said the review “apparently found some days with a very small number of preserved e-mails and some days with no e-mails preserved at all. [Roberts] also stated that a report summarizing these findings had been presented to the White House counsel's office.”

As part of its disaster and continuity-of-operations processes, the White House regularly backs up the Executive Office of the President’s network on tape media, Payton said in her declaration. She added that the backups create snapshots that include the e-mail information stored on the network and in customer mailboxes at the time the backup was created.

But any changes to the system made after the most recent snapshot would not be included on the backup tapes, which she said was consistent with industry standards. Payton also said recovering e-mail messages from backup tapes is “complex, labor-inte nsive and costly.”

She said a former employee of the Executive Office of the President had created a chart showing that a lower than expected number of e-mail messages were stored on certain days and that some days had no e-mail storage. But she added that White House officials have not been able to verify the data and are conducting an independent assessment.

Anne Weismann, CREW’s chief counsel, said her organization believes the e-mail problem has been well documented and White House officials have been aware of it since the Lewis "Scooter" Libby trial. Furthermore, analysis of the White House’s e-mail storage system suggests that 5 million missing messages could be a low estimate, she added.

“Her claim that all they have is a single chart is very troubling as it suggests evidence has been destroyed,” Weismann said.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto told the Associated Press, "There is no basis to say that the White House has destroyed any evidence or engaged in any misconduct."

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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