White House reveals e-mail backups missing

White House officials have disclosed that the administration does not have e-mail disaster recovery tapes dated between March 2003 and May 22, 2003 — a period that includes the invasion of Iraq.

The extent of the White House Office of Administration’s back-up tapes have become a focal point for two groups suing the White House for allegedly losing millions of e-mail messages in violation of laws that govern federal records.


In January, Theresa Payton, chief information officer in the Executive Office of the President’s (EOP) Office of Administration, told a U.S. District Court that the back up tapes should substantially contain the data for that period, but noted that the administration only began preserving all disaster recovery tapes in October 2003. The administration also says that because disaster recovery tapes capture what is stored on a server, they may contain e-mail messages from dates before the tape was actually created.

Administration officials also say there is no proof that any e-mail messages have gone missing, despite previous statements from officials that The George Washington University’s National Security Archive (NSA) and Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, the two groups suing the White House, and democratic lawmakers say indicate otherwise. The groups and the Democratic lawmakers investigating the alleged loss also point to a 2005 internal White House analysis suggesting that hundreds of days of e-mail messages for components of the White House are missing. White House officials now question the veracity of that study.

In the May 5 court filing, Payton answered a series of questions posed by the court regarding the extent of the back up tapes. The court is considering whether to expand a court order that requires White House officials to preserve the tapes. A federal magistrate ordered the officials to disclose details about the extent of the White House’s disaster recovery tapes and hard drives that were in use during the March 2003 to October 2005 period.

Payton said that there were 438 disaster recovery tapes dated from May 23, 2003, through September 29, 2003. White House officials told the court they began preserving all back up tapes in early October of that year. Payton said determining the exact content of those tapes would be overly burdensome. She said some 60,000 tapes have been created since May 23, 2003.


The NSA said in a statement that the revelation that back-up tapes dated before May 23, 2003, were not preserved suggests that e-mail messages that were deleted or improperly preserved from the EOP's computer system may not be recoverable from the back-up tapes.


“What is most shocking is that if anyone at the White House was deleting their e-mails during the invasion of Iraq, those e-mails are not on any back-up tapes,” NSA Director Tom Blanton said in a statement.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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