Groups press White House on e-mail

The recent litigation highlights issues agencies face in electronic records management.

A government watchdog organization last week requested a temporary restraining order that would require the White House to preserve backup tapes that might contain copies of millions of e-mail messages.The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed the motion Oct. 11 with a U.S. district court judge in Washington. The motion supports a lawsuit that CREW filed last month against the Executive Office of the President, the White House’s Office of Administration, and the National Archives and Records Administration.The lawsuit states that the Bush administration failed to meet its legal obligations under the Presidential Records Act by not preserving millions of e-mail messages since October 2003. The issue that the White House had lost e-mail messages first became prominent during the Lewis “Scooter” Libby trial.The lawsuit requests that the administration establish “an effective electronic records management system that ensures against the loss or destruction of government e-mail records.”The George Washington University’s National Security Archive filed a similar complaint in early September. Both lawsuits contend that official records have been lost since the administration failed to replace its older electronic records management system. The White House stopped using the Clinton-era Automated Records Management System in 2002 when it switched from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook.In April, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she believed the backup tapes existed and that the messages could be retrieved.The White House did not return calls for comment before press time about the latest motion.A NARA spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t comment on issues that are still being litigated.“The White House has acted completely irresponsibly about this entire matter,” said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the National Security Archive.CREW chief counsel Anne Weismann said that since filing the lawsuit, the organization has not received adequate assurances from the White House that it is properly preserving backup tapes.“The reason that we’ve asked for this preservation is that we’re saying should we prevail in this lawsuit, we want the court to be able to award effective relief,” Weismann said. “If the White House goes ahead and destroys all the backup tapes, then our ability to get relief is gone, and these tapes are not just for us, they are a part of American history.”The district court is expected to issue a decision on the restraining order soon.The administration’s problems highlight several aspects of electronic records management that extend beyond presidential records management and affect agencies that are working to comply with the Federal Records Act, which requires agencies to maintain relevant electronic communications as records.Proper electronic management remains a major challenge and potential danger for all agencies, said Tim Sprehe, a records management expert and Federal Computer Week columnist.“Very few agencies, if any, are doing good e-mail records management, and they all know it’s a liability,” he said.

Records management

Two lawsuits filed in the past two months state that the White House has not implemented an adequate electronic records management system since Bush administration officials eliminated a Clinton-era electronic records management system in 2002.

The White House deputy general counsel told House Oversight and Government Reform Committee staff members in May that an unidentified company was responsible for e-mail archiving at the White House, according to a letter Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, wrote to White House counsel. He has asked White House officials to identify the contractor.

Lisa Meyer, a spokeswoman at Unisys, an information technology contractor that White House officials hired to complete a switchover from the Lotus Notes e-mail system to Microsoft e-mail products, said she was unaware of any contractor that had complete oversight of e-mail archiving at the White House.

“There are many contractors working for the directorate, and no single one provided audit and archive functions,” Meyer said.

— Ben Bain





























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