Are White House e-mails gone for good?

Major differences between COOP and e-mail archiving systems are center stage

An ongoing legal controversy about whether White House officials lost millions of e-mail messages has underscored what experts say are important differences between records management systems and disaster recovery systems.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the George Washington University’s National Security Archive are suing the Bush administration to force White House officials to use disaster recovery tapes — or other means — to restore millions of e-mail messages that the groups say were not archived between 2003 and 2005.

In a court filing made last month,White House Chief Information Officer Theresa Payton said that before 2003 the Office of Administration had recycled disaster recovery tapes containing e-mail messages of the Executive Office of the President (EOP). Such recycling is consistent with industry best practices, Payton said. The filing documents do not explain why officials discontinued recycling the tapes.

Although it is standard practice for companies to recycle older disaster-recovery tapes as part of normal business cycles, disaster recovery tapes and e-mail archival systems serve different purposes, several experts said. Disaster recovery tapes are important for maintaining continuity of operations.

“What you do for COOP is going to be a lot different than what you do for archival purposes,” said David Smith, federal systems engineering manager at Citrix Systems.

Steve Davis, chief executive officer of All Hands Consulting, said records management and disaster recovery are different functions.His company was a subcontractor on a project to help the Office of Administration design its information technology COOP plan in 2003 and 2004. Davis said he is uncertain whether the plans he helped design were implemented.

White House officials declined to comment for this article.

COOP requirements are meant to restore government operations quickly after disruption or disaster, Davis said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency oversees federal COOP planning.

The Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act define statutory requirements for archiving records. The laws require White House and other agency officials to preserve records of official communication, which must be transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration for long-term archiving.

Susan Cooper, a NARA spokeswoman, said she could not comment on the lawsuit because NARA is a co-defendant. But generally speaking, the agency is more interested in the content of records and less concerned about how agencies capture them, she said.

According to Payton’s affidavit, the White House’s disaster recovery tapes provide a snapshot of the EOP network and could be used to reconstruct data on the EOP network. However, she added, the process of restoring e-mail messages from backup tapes is “complex, labor-intensive and costly.”

Rurik Bradbury, vice president of strategy at Intermedia, a business e-mail hosting company, said that what is actually captured in backup tapes depends on whether a disruption occurred since a snapshot was taken.

Spokesman Tony Fratto said last month that “there is no evidence” that e-mail messages are missing.

The Bush administration also now disputes the accuracy of a chart that White House officials showed congressional staffers last year. The chart showed 473 days for which no e-mail was archived for different White House components. That disavowal of the chart prompted Rep.Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to call a hearing Feb. 15 to clear up the confusion.

After White House officials switched to Microsoft Exchange Server in 2002, they stopped using an automated e-mail archiving system they had inherited from the Clinton administration. They began storing e-mail messages, formatted as Microsoft .pst fil s, on the EOP network.

The White House’s system of storing e-mail messages as .pst files makes searching for and retrieving messages like “finding a needle in a haystack,” Bradbury said.

“It would be very, very difficult to look through them and to prove something is missing. It’s hard to prove the absence of something.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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