Just hours after a judge Jan. 14 ordered the White House to search the entire Executive Office of the President and the Office of Administration to collect and preserve all e-mails sent or received between March 2003 and October 2005, a Bush administration official said the White House would meet its legal obligations. Millions of White House e-mails are missing from the period.
Federal law requires the preservation of all White House e-mail. The period of time covered by the order includes the start of the Iraq war, the Valerie Plame affair and the White House response to Hurricane Katrina. Two private watchdog groups -- Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive have sued the White House to produce and preserve the missing e-mails.
"The court made clear today that any additional work that the White House has to do before its occupants depart is its own fault," Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Archive, said in a statement. "As the magistrate judge implied, they rolled the dice hoping they would get this case thrown out of court and they lost. Now they have to make up for lost time."
Helen H. Hong, a Department of Justice attorney representing the White House, admitted the Bush administration had hoped to get the lawsuits dismissed but White House search efforts had produced the missing e-mails. Hong said private contractors discovered the missing e-mails after reviewing more than 60,000 backup tapes at a cost of $10 million.
The missing e-mails were first revealed during a congressional investigation of the firing of U.S. attorneys general. The White House contends an administration migration from Lotus Notes to Exchange resulted in "some" archived e-mails being mislabeled, making them difficult to find using routine search protocols.
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 of Administration refused to turn over the information, CREW sued the White House May 23, 2007, 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, 2007. The National Security Archive and CREW have subsequently consolidated their legal actions against the White House to force disclosure of the missing e-mails.
As part of the Jan. 14 court order, the White House is required to take all necessary steps to secure files from individual computer workstations, memory sticks, zip drives, DVDs and CDs. Both CREW and National Archive officials questioned whether the new White House disclosures will actually cover all of the missing e-mails.
"The White House admitted it did nothing to stop people working in the White House from disposing of memory sticks, CDs, DVDs and zip drives that may have been the sole copies of missing e-mails on them," said Sheila Shadmand of Jones Day, another attorney for the National Archive."We believe our ability to get a complete restoration of the White House record from 2003 to 2005 and evidence of what went wrong has been compromised."
Tom Blanton, director of the National Archive, suggested more oversight was needed of the White House e-mail preservation efforts.
"If this kind of irresponsible conduct can take place despite the Executive Office of the President's obligations under the Federal Records Act and this lawsuit, then perhaps the country needs more oversight of record-keeping in the White House," Blanton said.