WASHINGTON-A U.S. House hearing on missing White House e-mail erupted into a partisan political catfight Feb. 26 when Democrats released a hotly contested statement by a former Executive Office of the President IT employee who claims he warned the White House its e-mail archival system was inadequate.
“The process by which e-mail was being collected and retained was primitive and the risk that data would be lost was high,” Steven McDevitt, an information technology specialist at the White House from 2002-2003, said in the statement. “There is no way to guarantee that all records are retained in their complete and modified state.”
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.
Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are pursuing an investigation that the White House is ignoring federal law requiring the White House to save all administration e-mail.
“The White House’s own analysis of its system identified over 700 days in which e-mail records seem either impossibly low or completely non-existent,” said Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman. “This 2005 analysis was prepared by a team of 15 White House officials and contractors.”
But Rep. Tom Davis, the ranking Republican on the panel, said the 2005 report has been “discredited” and that subsequent information has “forced administration critics to back away from the politically-charged allegation and acknowledge the less sensational but far more probative technical realities at work here.”
Waxman noted, “Many of us have grown used to the White House attacking any congressional or independent study that conflicts with President Bush’s policies. This is the first time I can remember the White House using those same tactics on itself. It is remarkable.”
When the Bush administration took office, it inherited the Automated Records Management System, or ARMS, put in placed by the Clinton administration. The system was compatible with Lotus Notes. Between 2002-2004, the Bush administration began a migration to Microsoft Exchange.
“There was a great deal of concern about proceeding with the migration to Outlook/Exchange without having an adequate e-mail records management solution in place,” McDevitt said in his statement. “The approach of simply storing e-mail messages in .pst files provides no mechanism or audit trail that tracks changes to data files or the activities performed by users or system administrators.”
E-mails may have been misfiled during migration
Davis said during the White House migration from Lotus Notes to Exchange some archive e-mail may have been mislabeled, making them difficult to find using routine search protocols. Theresa Payton, CIO for the Office of Administration, told the committee subsequent search efforts had located a number of the missing e-mails, reducing the number of days of missing e-mail to about 200.
“So a substantial portion of the so-called ‘missing e-mails’ appear to be not missing at all, just filed in the wrong digital drawer,” Davis said.
As recently as October, though, the National Archives, which is charged with collecting and retaining administration records, had problems with the White House system.
According to notes taken by the National Archives of a meeting with White House officials, “We expressed great concern that the process was moving so slowly, and that we were very skeptical that the report results from the new [search] tool could completely eliminate the possibility of messages missing from the collections system.”
The National Security Archive, an independent, nongovernmental research institute and library located at George Washington University, and CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) have also 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 on 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.