Waxman: Chart showed White House missing e-mails

There are 473 days for which components of the Executive Office of the President have no archived e-mail messages, according to a chart that White House officials showed House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staff at a September briefing, the committee’s chairman said Jan. 17.

In a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said that the information Bush administration officials showed to his staff conflicts with a Jan. 17 statement from a White House spokesman that states that the administration had “absolutely no reason to believe that any e-mails are missing" from its archival system.

The inconsistency prompted Waxman to call a Feb. 15 hearing to examine whether the White House has been complying with its presidential recordkeeping obligations. Fielding, director of the White House’s Office of Administration, and Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein have been asked to testify.

According to Waxman’s letter to Fielding, the officials who presented the chart to the staff members took it with them after the briefing and said they were going to do “additional analysis to determine whether the information in the chart was accurate.” Several Bush administration officials have since questioned the chart, which summarized the accuracy of the findings of the 2005 study of the White House’s e-mail archive system.

Waxman said he had not yet received an answer to his request for any updated information they found.

Waxman said he plans to use the hearing to clear up the “considerable confusion that exists regarding the status of White House efforts to preserve e-mails.” In his letter, Waxman says he plans to question the officials about electronic recordkeeping at the White House, the recycling of backup tapes, how the administration plans to give its records to the National Archive and Records Administration, and allegations that millions of White House e-mail messages were lost — the subject of ongoing litigation.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and George Washington University’s National Security Archive are suing the Bush administration for allegedly failing to “recover, restore and preserve certain electronic communications created and/or received within the White House.” The groups say the administration illegally discarded at least 5 million e-mail messages between March 2003 and October 2005.

The details of the Bush administration’s e-recordkeeping system and e-mail backup contingency plans became clearer this week when Theresa Payton, chief information officer in the Executive Office of the President’s Office of Administration, submitted an affidavit Jan. 15 to a federal court with details about the information contained on the White House’s backup tapes. The revelation came in response to a court order in the now consolidated lawsuit against the Bush administration.

Her declaration states that although the White House has backup media from October 2003 onward, the White House recycled the backup tapes used from March to October 2003, a period that included the United States’ invasion of Iraq. According to Waxman’s letter, one of the days for which the White House has no e-mail archived for the Office of the Vice President – Sept. 12, 2003 -- came while backup tapes were being recycled.

Payton also said that the CIO’s office had “serious reservations about the reliability of the chart.” Because of “the apparent lack of supporting documentation,” her office was doing an independent investigation to see if there were any anomalies, she said in the declaration.

On Jan. 16, CREW and the National Security Archive filed a response that states that Payton’s statement was “completely at odds with the thousands of pages of documents, including 'spreadsheets and related documents,'” that they say that the White House has acknowledged as having which detail the problem.

The plaintiffs’ response also states that the Payton's affidavit suggests that she either did not have full information regarding the earlier study that the White House conducted, she testified untruthfully or that full documentation had been destroyed.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters Jan. 17 that the White House had tried to “reconstruct some of the work that went into a chart that was entered into court records and could not replicate that or could not authenticate the correctness of the data in that chart.”

According to Waxman’s letter, the chart that administration officials showed his staff in September showed there was no e-mail archived for:

  • The White House Office for 12 days between Dec. 17, 2003, and Feb. 8, 2004.

  • The Office of the Vice President for 16 days between Sept. 12, 2003, and May 23, 2005.

  • The Council on Environmental Quality for 81 days, including the entire period between Nov. 1, 2003, and Jan. 11, 2004.

  • The Council of Economic Advisers for 103 days, including the entire period between Nov. 2, 2003, and Jan. 11, 2004.

  • The Office of Management and Budget for 59 days, including the entire period between Nov. 1, 2003, and Dec. 9, 2003.

  • The U.S. Trade Representative for 73 days, including the entire period between Feb. 11, 2004, and April 18, 2004.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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