The government's admission further clouds efforts by groups to recover millions of missing e-mails.
In a last-minute filing in federal court, the White House admitted Jan. 15
that it had recycled computer backup tapes containing millions of missing
e-mails related to the early years of the Bush administration.
However, administration officials refused to admit that any e-mails are
Instead, in a sworn deposition, Theresa Payton, CIO for the Office of
Administration, said her office "has undertaken an independent effort to
determine whether there may be anomalies in Exchange e-mail counts" prior
to October 2003.
Payton's deposition was filed shortly before midnight
Jan. 15, only minutes before a court-imposed deadline to answer lingering
questions about the backup copies of the missing White House e-mails.
The missing e-mails were first revealed during a congressional investigation
of the firing of U.S.
attorneys general. The period they cover also includes the start of the Iraq
war and the time when a White House official publicly identified Valerie Plame
as a CIA operative.
"Two years after a special prosecutor concluded that key e-mails were
missing from the White House system administered by the Office of
Administration, the White House astonishingly now admits it has no backup tapes
from before October 2003 and doesn't know if any e-mails are missing," Tom
Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said in a statement.
The National Security Archive, an independent, nongovernmental research
institute and library located at George
and CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington)
have been pressuring the White House for public disclosure of the e-mails.
CREW originally filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Office
of Administration on March 29, 2007,
regarding records of the missing e-mails. When the office refused to turn over
the information, CREW sued the White House May 23 for the information. The
organization also released a report on the missing e-mails based on information
obtained from two confidential sources.
Following up on CREW's information, the National Security Archive also sued
the White House Sept. 5. The National Security Archive and CREW have
subsequently consolidated their legal actions against the White House to force
disclosure of the missing e-mails. The House Committee on Oversight and
Government Reform is also seeking additional information on the missing e-mails.
The White House admits the e-mails are missing and that in 2002 it abandoned
the electronic records management system put in place by the Clinton
administration. The Presidential Records Act requires that all White House
e-mail be saved.
"It strikes me as odd that they recognized a problem and changed their
practice in 2003 to start saving the backups, but four-and-a-half years later
they still have not yet figured out whether or what e-mails were deleted,"
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, said in a
statement. "It also is troubling that the problem may have started before
October 2003, and they acknowledge that backups prior to that period were
recycled and are gone."
Magistrate John Facciola of the U.S. District Court for the District
of Columbia on Jan. 8 ordered that the Executive
Office of the President answer questions about whether the backups are
identifiable by the period of time they cover or by data they contain, whether
they contain e-mails created between 2003 and 2005 and whether they contain the
"At this stage, this office does not know if any e-mails were not
properly preserved in the archiving process," Payton said in her
CREW responded with disappointment that the White House recycled the backup
tapes and noted that although the Bush administration now backs up e-mail to
tape, those backups are only a "snapshot" of what was on the server
at the time.
"With this new filing, the White House has admitted that although it
has long known about the missing e-mails, it did nothing to recover them, or
discover how and why they went missing in the first place," Anne Weismann,
CREW's chief counsel, said in a statement. "The missing e-mails are
important historical records that belong not to the Bush administration, but to
the American people."