Bush’s e-mail misery has company

Details on missing e-mails emerge

A report issued by House Democrats last week states that the Bush administration hasn’t cooperated with the National Archives and Records Administration in its effort to ensure the preservation of White House e-mail. The report also said NARA warned as early as 2004 that the administration’s e-mail archival system was at risk. One former high-level White House information technology specialist, Steven McDevitt, also identified several concerns about the administration’s e-mail archiving system.

They include:

  • The system would produce incomplete data.

  • The system’s .pst files could not be reconciled with original data.

  • The public’s perception of the system would be negative.

  • The system had limited ability to ensure user accountability.

— Ben Bain

The ongoing investigation into the Bush administration’s presidential recordkeeping has raised questions about e-mail records management across the government.

Many agencies still print out e-mail messages, store them, and if they are determined to be permanent records, hand them over to the National Archives and Records Administration for safe keeping.

That process is less advanced than the criticized manual process called “journaling,” on which the White House has been relying and is now the subject of litigation and congressional inquiry.

Since the White House switched its e-mail system from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange in 2002, it has relied primarily on journaling, a manual process in which employees assign file names to individual messages and save them as .pst files on White House servers.

Experts say the Federal Records Act (FRA) that agencies must follow is in many aspects less stringent than the Presidential Records Act (PRA).

Under the PRA, records must be transferred to NARA at the end of each administration.

But while an administration is in office, the law gives the Executive Office of the President records management authority.

Under the FRA, NARA is more involved in the process of approving records schedules that determine how and when agencies will hand over records for permanent preservation.

However, how the records are maintained and deciphered is largely left to individual agencies. Although NARA has issued increased guidance for how agencies should comply with the FRA requirements for their e-mail, there is not a uniform approach to capturing those records at each agency.

Instead, much of the emphasis has been on training employees because the decision as to whether an e-mail is a record is often made at a workstation.

“Mainly what we are in the business of doing now is contextualizing the guidance and standards that are already out there to what you have to do with e-mail,” said Paul Wester, director of NARA’s modern records programs.

Tim Sprehe, a records management expert and Federal Computer Week columnist, said e-mail archiving is not being taken seriously enough by agencies.

“I’ll tell you when they get serious about it — when they get litigation,” he said.

Meanwhile, extensive details have emerged about the administration’s e-mail archiving practices because of two lawsuits.

They allege that the White House and NARA lost millions of e-mails from 2003 to 2005 in violation of federal records laws.

A hearing last week by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee produced details of the White House’s e-mail system that has operated since White House officials scrapped the Clinton administration’s Automatic Records Management System. Several former White House officials described the approach of journaling as insufficient and one former employee told the committee that it was primitive.

In general, what to do with e-mail records is a question facing agencies governmentwide, said one federal records manager who requested anonymity.

“There are some agencies that are doing better than others, some agencies are very much wedded to print and file — in fact NARA is wedded to print and file,” she said. “The short answer is that there are multiple approaches in the agency, and everyone is struggling with which is best.”

Federal agencies have the option of purchasing electronic records management archival systems, but they must meet specific NARA requirements, and training can also be expensive and time-consuming.

“The volume of e-mail has grown exponentially, and the policies and tech have not always met that growth,” the manager said. “I think it is probably as much of a management policy problem as it is a technology problem.”
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About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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