White House settles Bush-era suit over millions of e-mail messages

The Obama administration and two private groups that sued the administration of  George W. Bush over its e-mail archiving practices have reached an agreement to settle the ongoing litigation that involved millions of e-mail messages.
 
Obama’s Executive Office of the President (EOP) has agreed to restore a total of 94 days of missing e-mails from the Bush administration, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington and George Washington University's National Security Archive, the plaintiffs in the case. Meanwhile, the government has found, sorted and properly categorized 22 million more e-mails messages than they could find in late 2005 as result of restoration pursued during the lawsuit, the Archive said in a statement.

The agreement was announced Dec. 14.

The litigation, filed in September 2007, alleged that the Bush administration violated a federal records law by not recovering, restoring and preserving millions of electronic communications and by not establishing an electronic records management system. The groups also sued the National Archives and Records Administration, which is responsible for long-term preservation of federal and presidential records.

The messages in question span between March 2003 and October 2005. The time frame includes the invasion of Iraq, key developments in the Valerie Plame leak investigation, and the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

CREW and the Archive said the e-mail retention problem started when Bush White House offices switched their e-mail systems from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange in 2002 and didn’t put in place a new automated archiving system. Instead, Bush administration officials relied primarily on a manual process named “journaling” in which e-mail messages are manually named and saved as .pst files on White House servers. The groups say the Bush administration’s failure to put in place another automated archive system contributed to the loss of millions of e-mail messages.

As part of the settlement signed Dec. 14, the Obama administration agreed to provide to the groups by Jan. 15 a publicly releasable description of the new archiving system it has put in place to manage and preserve electronic records.
 
"We have been briefed on the system in use since the beginning of the Obama administration and we believe that the system now in use fixes the significant problems with the prior system, including by capturing everything, properly categorizing the e-mails, and preventing unauthorized deletion," Meredith Fuchs, the National Security Archive's general counsel, said in a statement.

The Obama administration has also committed to continue to provide the groups with information related to the e-mail controversy, according to the agreement. CREW said so far the Obama administration has produced thousands of pages of documents related to the Bush administration's e-mail problems, and the documents have been posted at www.governmentdocs.org.






About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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