The Bush administration may be running out the clock in its efforts to resist a congressional inquiry and two lawsuits seeking the whereabouts and contents of more than 5 million missing White House e-mails, according to one of the organizations that has filed a suit.
“The White House has known for a number of years the e-mails were missing and refused to do anything about it,” Anne Weisman, chief counsel for CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), told eWEEK.
Covering more than a two years, the missing e-mails came to light as part of congressional inquiries into the White Houses firing of U.S. attorneys.
The White House admits the e-mails are missing and that the EOP (Executive Office of the President) in 2002 abandoned the electronic records management system put in place by the Clinton administration. The e-mails were deleted between March 2003 and October 2005.
The Presidential Records Act requires that all White House e-mail be saved.
CREW filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request with the White House Office of Administration on March 29 for records on the missing e-mail. 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.
The Bush administration countered in an August court filing that the Office of Administration is not subject to FOIA and there has been no further movement in the CREW lawsuit.
“It appears they are trying to run out the clock,” Weisman said, referring to the 2008 national elections when voters will select a new president. “Weve had no indication of cooperation from them.”
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Following up on CREWs information, the National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental organization based at George Washington University, sued the White House on Sept. 5 seeking the recovery and preservation of the missing e-mails. The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is also seeking additional information on the matter.
“The Bush White House broke the law and erased our history by deleting those e-mail messages,” National Security Archive Director Tom Blanton said in a Sept. 5 statement. “The period of the missing e-mails starts with the invasion of Iraq and runs through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
Meredith Fuchs, the groups general counsel, added: “Without court oversight, theres no guarantee the White House will ever recover the missing e-mails or install an effective archiving system.”
The White House has until Nov. 5 to reply to the lawsuit.
The White House did not return inquiries for comment, but in an April 16 briefing, White House press secretary Dana Perino said, “Im not taking issue with [CREWs] conclusions at this point. But I also will tell you that the technical folks that weve spoken to in the preliminary discussions was that if there had been an inadvertent human error or a technical problem…it wouldnt have been intentional and… there are ways that we can try to gather those if need be.”
Perino also said, “I think there are backup tapes; there are different ways in order to go back and find e-mails.”
That caught the attention of Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. At Waxmans request, Keith Roberts, deputy general counsel for the White House Office of Administration, briefed the committee staff on the missing e-mails.
“According to Mr. Roberts, the Office of the Chief Information Officer … conducted a review of the e-mail system to determine the scope of the potential loss,” Waxman wrote to White House counsel Fred Fielding Aug. 30. “He said that this review apparently found some days with a very small number of preserved e-mails and some days with no preserved e-mails at all.”
Waxman noted Roberts claimed a report was written summarizing the situation and submitted to the White House counsels office. Roberts also said an “unidentified” company was responsible for auditing the White Houses e-mail and archiving systems.
“Mr. Roberts was not able to explain why the daily audits conducted by this contractor failed to detect the problems in the archive system when they first began,” Waxman wrote.
The committee staff requested a copy of the internal White House report on the missing e-mails and the identity of the contractor responsible for the audits. According to a committee spokesperson, the White House has not responded to either request.
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