Behind The Missing White House E-Mail

The Presidential Records Act dictates that the White House archive all records including e-mails. Problem is the Executive Office of the President seemingly hasn't had a reliable system for preserving emails, despite the best efforts of three CIOs, numerous contractors and around $70 million expenditures. In the interim, an estimated 5 million White House emails have been lost, many of them reportedly dealing with sensitive political issues. Is this the result of a widespread attempt by the Bush administration to leave no electronic fingerprint behind, the fallout stemming from a series of IT missteps, political infighting and technical ineptitude, or perhaps some combination of the two?

By Laton McCartney

Remember the Watergate tapes -- recorded conversations among U.S President Richard Nixon and various White House staff members? One of those recordings was the so-called "smoking gun" tape in which the President requested that his staff pressure the CIA and FBI to justify the Watergate break-in as a national security matter. When that tape was finally made public in July 1974, Nixon lost what little support he had left and resigned a month later.

Four years later Congress passed The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 which governs the official records of the White House. The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public, and established a new statutory structure under which Presidents must manage their records. The PRA now mandates that the White House preserve e-mails and all other records documenting the "activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies" of the President.

In addition, what's called the Federal Records Act (FDA) dictates that federal records may not be destroyed -- except under the authority of a records disposition schedule approved by the Archivist of the United States. Created in 1950, the FDA requires that each federal agency head and his or her designees are responsible for ensuring that their agency creates and maintains records. In 1993 the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law applied to the White House and that electronic copies of emails needed to be stored and not just paper print outs.

It's important to note, however, that once a presidency has concluded, all White House documents including emails are turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for 12 years. During that period access is at best limited and subject to review by the former President. In other words, when George W. Bush steps down in 2009, his administration's records won't be fully accessible until 2021.

With all that in mind, many have a hard time comprehending why the White House -- effectively the headquarters of the most technically advanced nation in the world -- has seemingly been unable to implement, maintain and effectively manage an email records keeping system.

An estimated 5 million White House emails, many of which are thought to deal with the outset of the Iraq war, the controversial firing of eight federal attorneys and the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, appear to have gone AWOL - setting off a firestorm of lawsuits and congressional investigations.

"Good technology for automatically and seamlessly archiving email has existed since 2000," says Bill Tolson, director of legal and regulatory solutions marketing at Mimosa Systems, which provides information management and retrieval solutions, and co-author of "Email Archiving for Dummies." With this readily available and easily implemented technology, emails can be archived in real time, indexed and made searchable as easy as one, two, three. "There never has been a technical reason [for the White House] not to have this capability in place. Perhaps it was a matter of budgetary constraints or political foot dragging, but technology is not an obstacle."

Whatever the case, the story of White House e-mails - which, in fact, goes back to the Clinton White House -- touches on issues such as data archiving, e-discovery and network security that are vital to chief information officers.

This is a classic tale of what can go wrong -- even at the highest levels of government -- when a critical electronic communications archival and retrieval system is broken.

{mospagebreak title=Back to the future}

Indeed, the Republicans don't have a monopoly on email archiving problems.

Anyone remember all the emails pertaining to Monica Lewinsky and questionable campaign donations that went AWOL during the Clinton-Gore years? In fact, the Bush administration inherited some of the previous administration's email problems.

In 1994, the Clinton-Gore administration put up the first White House Web site and installed an archiving system called Automated Records Management System (ARMS). ARMS was really a set of systems that was developed to meet a court mandate for the White House to preserve emails under the FDA. At the time, ARMS was implemented, no commercial off-the-shelf system to support email records management existed in the marketplace. Consequently, ARMS was by necessity a custom system.

To design, build and maintain the e-mail and archiving system the White House hired Planning Research Corp. (PRC), a software company that worked largely for the military and government and had held the White House computer contract for 22 years, spanning five presidents (PRC was subsequently acquired by Litton Industries). "The ARMS system was implemented using the staff, contractors, resources and technologies that were present-at-hand within EOP [Executive Office of the President] at that time," Steven McDevitt, a senior IT official in the Bush White House from September 2002 to October 2006, said in a February 21, 2008, email to Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The Oversight Committee began an investigation into missing White House emails in 2007 and held hearings on the matter in February. A source close to the hearings says that the White House placed such tight restrictions through its lawyers on what McDevitt could testify to "that basically he could say nothing as a live witness." Thus, the written email exchange between Waxman's office and McDevitt.

McDevitt was not part of the Clinton White House IT team at the time ARMS was introduced. In his initial role in the Bush White House as an information technology specialist and project manager, he did, however, conduct an analysis of ARMS in 2002 as part of an attempt to provide a long-term solution to support the emails records management of the EOP.

According to McDevitt and several Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports, the ARMS systems began experiencing some major hiccups soon after it was installed.

Gore, who as vice president was enthusiastically promoting what he called "the information super highway," had decided to set up his own computer system separate from that of the White House. The Office of the Vice President (OVP) used a temporary email storage system until ARMS was up and running. Thinking that the ARMS system was already in operation and that President's Office of Administration (OA) was managing backup tapes, the Office of the Vice President didn't bother to maintain a back up archive of its own after May 1993. Unfortunately for the Vice President and his staff, ARMS wasn't fully activated until July 1994. As a result, according to the GAO report, about 600 systems backup tapes needed to be restored to determine if they contained any non-archived email records. The cost of this exercise: an estimated $11.7 million.

Then, in 1996, the White House began a move to use servers instead of simply tape as part of the ARMS system.

It deployed Lotus Notes software as its email application and installed and maintained four Lotus Notes email servers, one remote server and one ARMS interface server. The latter transferred email records from the emails system to ARMS. From the outset, however, there were interface glitches between the interface server and ARMs.

The problem was that ARMS wasn't picking up data from the new server, which was named Mail2. As a consequence, thousands of email records - 10,000 plus according to the GAO report -- to and from West Wing officials including President Clinton went missing.

There were also difficulties migrating users to the new system.

The White House pointed the finger at PRC, which installed the Lotus Notes system, and replaced the contractor with Northrop Grumman.

"We had numerous problems with the email system. It was very poorly constructed and very poorly designed by a contractor prior to Northrop Grumman," Laura Crabtree Callahan, a former senior IT manager at the Clinton White House told the House Government Reform Committee, which was looking into the Clinton-Gore email problems in March 2000. Callahan, who claimed to have a Ph.D. in Computer Science, went on to become deputy CIO in the United States Department of Homeland Security in the Bush administration but was forced to resign after a Government Computer News broke the story in April 2003 that she had had obtained her advanced computer science degree from a diploma mill run out of a refurbished Motel 6 in Evanston, Wyo. CIOZone was unable to reach Callahan to comment on this story.

PRC countered that White House officials had pressured the contractor to rush the job, and argued there were as many as 50 White House IT officials tinkering with the servers - too many chefs as it were -- while PRC was implementing them. Still, PRC was off the case.

{mospagebreak title=Trouble Ahead}

The problems with ARMS/Lotus Notes servers didn't come to light until 1998.

The glitch, according to the GAO report, was caused by human error in the capitalization of the letters in the name of the MAIL2 email server. The correct spelling was Mail2. The upshot? For the affected users outgoing emails were included in the ARMS record management database, but incredibly incoming messages were not as a result of this programming flaw. Some 256 users were affected.

Then, in its efforts to repair this problem, the letter D was somehow deleted from a key piece of software. As a result all users in the email system whose first names began with D were not subject to records management. Some 200 accounts were affected.

At the same time, many at the White House continued to use disparate e-mail systems despite the adaptation of Lotus Notes.

Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW), a non-profit activist group in Washington - and formerly a Department of Justice official who oversaw all government information litigation between 1995 until 2002 -- told CIOZone that the 10,000-Plus missing Clinton administration emails resulted from technical failures and were not deliberately destroyed.

Still, after the Mail2 server problem was discovered, Laura Crabtree Callahan and Mark Lindsay, director of White House management and administration, ordered Northrop Grumman staffers on the project to fix the archival system and maintain absolute silence regarding their efforts, according to testimony the Northrop staffers later gave a House Government Reform Committee investigating the missing emails. Some Grumman workers even claimed that Callahan threatened to have them jailed if they talked -- a charge that was never proven in court and Lindsay and Callahan denied. The clandestine project, according to CNN and other media sources, became known as "Project X." Participants, including the Northrop crew and a White House project manager, met at a nearby Starbucks or in Lafayette Park, keeping their work secret even from some IT staffers within the White House.

Particularly sensitive given the Lewinsky scandal was the discovery by several Northrop employees including systems administrator Robert Hass in June 1998 of a batch of emails to the former White House intern from friends of hers still employed by the Clinton administration. Yet no responses from Lewinsky were recorded. This was a by-product of the Mail2 server problem, according to The New York Times, but initially, at least, it looked like an attempt to deep-six incoming emails from Lewinsky.

Eventually, when the details behind the Mail2 failure became evident, House Government Reform Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) said, "The big deal is not that a computer technician made a mistake. The big deal is how the White House reacted to it." He was referring the White House's attempts to conceal the mistake.

{mospagebreak title=Enter Bush}

Five weeks after the January 20, 2001, inauguration of President George W. Bush, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales informed the White House staff they must preserve their email. "Any email relating to official business … qualifies as a Presidential record" even if received on a personal email account, Gonzales said

Three months later the White House announced a plan to name a White House chief information officer - there had been none during the entire Clinton Presidency - and hired Carlos Solari. A former army officer, Solari had spent the previous six-plus years as a senior executive with the FBI's Criminal IT Investigative Division.

At the White House, Solari's mission was to transform the EOP email system and IT infrastructure into a modern, survivable enterprise serving the White House and its component offices, which include the Council of Economic Advisors and the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board . This overall two-year strategy involved $60 million in federal funds, the reengineering of major business processes and consolidation of systems. Solari also created a system survivability plan for high assurance in crisis conditions.

As part of this major infrastructure upgrade, one of the early challenges was to consolidate many disparate emails systems that were still being used despite the earlier conversion to Lotus Notes, according to a former White House IT manager, who wished to remain anonymous. Then, in 2002, the White House decided to switch from the Lotus Notes email system to a Microsoft Exchange email system. The Bush people had used Exchange during the campaign. "This was where the White House hit a real speed bump," says Bill Tolson, co-author of "Email Archiving for Dummies" book.

The timing of this transition struck some people as strange, however. "There was an email migration during wartime that makes no sense," says David Gewirtz, author of the book "Where Have All the Emails Gone?" and publisher and editor-in-chief of OutlookPower Magazine and DominoPower Magazine. "The White House moved from IBM Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange right in the middle of a build-up and prosecution of an invasion. Why would you yank out such a critical command and control system at such a busy time?"

The White House did not respond to CIOZone's requests for interviews to interview staff members familiar with its email system.

Concurrent with the switch to Exchange, Solari first began modifying and then moving off ARMS to a new email archiving system called the Electronic Communications Records Management System (ECRMS). EOP gave Booz Allen Hamilton a contract to begin designing ECRMS in 2002 and awarded Unisys a task order under an existing contract to test and implement the system. In a Feb. 7, 2008, interview of Solari by staff members of the Oversight Committee, the former White House CIO characterized ECRMS as of "high importance."

This migration, started in 2002, was completed in 2004.

In the interim, EOP began an ad hoc process called "journaling" whereby either a White House staffer or a contractor would collect a journal email folder in the Exchange system containing copies of e-mails sent and received by White House employees from the president and vice president on down. After retrieving these copies the staffer or contractor would then manually name them and save them as Personal Storage Tables (PST) files -- which are typically created by users as a secondary data store -- on various White House servers. In the Feb. 7, 2008, interview by Oversight Committee staff, Solari said this was "a short term solution" that was not considered by the White House as a good long-term solution.

It was also a solution fraught with numerous risks, some of which Steven McDevitt spelled out to the Oversight Committee. Among them:

  • Incomplete data. The process by which email was being collected and retained was primitive and the risk that the data would be lost was high.
  • Data reconciliation. There was no way to guarantee that all records were retained in their complete and unmodified state. (PST files have known tendencies to corrupt when they near their maximum size which is 2 gigabytes for Outlook XP and earlier editions).
  • Public Perception. Given the problems missing emails had caused the previous administration, EOP should exert extra caution before making any changes to the email retention process.
  • User Accountability. The approach of simply storing email massages in PST files provides no mechanism or audit trail that tracks changes to data files or the activities performed by users or systems administrators.

Under questioning from the Oversight Committee, McDevitt also offered up this remarkable revelation. "The file servers and the file directories used to store the retained email PST files were accessible by everyone on the EOP network." He explained that this security breach, which was identified and corrected in 2005, would have allowed any White House official to review or tamper with the emails of any other White House official without being detected. Moreover, there was no way to determine if a particular email had been tampered with by anyone on the EOP system, McDevitt said.

In the post 9/11 world, then, when National Security was supposedly at its highest level ever, any of the 2,000 or so users of the EOP network could access any email in the PST files including those to and from the president and vice president at will without leaving behind fingerprints, according to McDevitt.

{mospagebreak title=Next Up: ECRMS}

The ECRMS project had started, according to McDevitt, with an initial draft of the Concept of Operations in 2002. This was reviewed and approved by the Office of Administration Counsel, which advises the President on all legal issues pertaining to White House administration; the White House Office of Records Management; White House Counsel, Harriet Miers; and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Subsequently the White House developed a statement of work to "complete a detailed system requirements specification, evaluate commercial off the shelf products and propose solutions that meet the government requirements."

Contractor Booz Allen recommended a combination of two commercial off-the-self products - the products were not named by McDevitt in his testimony -- to serve as the core of the ECRMS system. This approach, according to McDevitt, was presented to the White House Counsel, the White House Office of Records Management, and counsel in the Office of Administration (OA), which provides administration and support services for EOP components, all the agencies that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act in early 2004. With Unisys serving as the contractor for the final implementation phase, the White House undertook "systems configuration, testing and tuning."

Carlos Solari, who resigned in February 2005 to set up an IT security consulting firm in Shenandoah, Va. (he currently heads up Bell Labs Security Solutions Research Center at Alcatel-Lucent), has conceded that the implementation took longer than anticipated, in part because of extensive testing.

In early March 2006 standard operating procedures were developed; in July White House officials were given a final briefing on the search and retrieval capabilities of the ECMRS solution. The following month, McDevitt said, the project was "ready to go live." That never happened, however.

{mospagebreak title=A Black Hole}

The need for installing an effective archival system had become abundantly clear as ECRMs was being completed. In October 2005 an Office of Administration team, which was headed by McDevitt and included 14 White House officials and contractor personnel, discovered that some emails had not been archived properly. A detailed analysis subsequently showed that, in fact, between January 3, 2003 and July 28, 2005, approximately 5 million emails were missing for one or more EOP components, based on the normal email traffic patterns among the 1,700 of so users of the White House system. Moreover, the analysis identified over 700 days during that period in which Executive Office email traffic was unusually low, and 473 days in which there were virtually no Executive Office emails preserved. The analysis also showed a complete absence of emails stored for the President's office for 12 days and for Vice President Cheney's office for 16 days.

White House Counsel Harriet Miers was provided a detailed briefing of this analysis and a plan of action to recover the missing email was developed, according to a report by CREW, the non-profit activist group in Washington, titled "Without a Trace: The Story Behind the Missing White House E-Mails and the Violations of the Presidential Records Act."

The White House, however, had remained mum about this massive black hole in its journaling system. Consequently, the issue didn't become problematic until January 2006 when Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald tried to determine what role, if any, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, had played in the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. After Fitzgerald requested that all relevant email from the White House be turned over to his office, he discovered, as he noted in a January 23, 2006, letter to Libby's attorney, "that not all email of the Office of the Vice President and the Executive Office of President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through normal archiving process on the White House computer system."

In fact, according to documents later obtained by the Oversight Committee, the journaling archive contained not a single email from the OVP from September 30, 2003, to October 6, 2003, which coincided exactly with the opening days of the Justice Department's investigation of the Plame affair. The OVP backup tapes also contained no PST files or journalized emails emanating from or to Cheney's office during that period.

{mospagebreak title=A New CIO}

Between Solari's departure and the completion of ECRMS, there had been considerable turnover among White House IT staff. This "high degree of discontinuity" according to an IT staffer who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, compounded White House technology problems.

Solari had been replaced after he resigned in March 2005 by acting CIO John Straub. Straub, in turn, left in May 2006 and was replaced by a new CIO, Theresa Payton, a former senior vice president and technology executive at Bank of America Corp. Three months later, just as ECRMS was ready to go live, Payton decided not deploy it. At first, she didn't give a reason for her decision. According to NARA records, at a February 6, 2007, meeting between NARA officials and Payton and Office of Administration (OA) staff to discuss NARA's need for knowledge of OA electronic email and other electronic systems managed by OA, Payton and the OA representative simply explained that ECRMS was not being implemented. Therefore emails were no longer being preserved in a formal electronic recordkeeping system and NARA would thus likely receive emails in multiple formats. "OA gives NARA no indication that there is a problem with any missing emails," the report states.

Subsequently, according to NARA records, NARA representatives met with Payton and four other representatives on October 11, 2007, at an OA conference room in OA's G Street NW offices. The NARA team, "asked if anyone had brought to the meeting the so-called '2005 report' which we understand constitutes an Excel spreadsheet of some sort." This was the report from the McDevitt-led team dealing with millions of missing emails. No one had a copy available. Asked if she had reviewed an electronic version of the report, "She (Payton) indicated she had not … out of concern that doing so would in some way compromise the integrity of the document."

When NARA asked if OA could provide a copy of the document, the EOP representatives said they would take that request "under advisement." On October 31, NARA staff members were provided a brief opportunity to view a paper copy of the report, but were not allowed to keep that copy.

It was at this meeting that Payton spelled out the reasons ECRMS had been cancelled, noting that ECRMS would have required 18 months to ingest that existing backlog of messages from the journal email folders in the Microsoft Exchange system. She also claimed ECRMS made it impossible to distinguish records subject to the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act from personal emails that were not. This matter had already been reviewed by OA counsel, which had ruled it wasn't a concern.

Later, testifying before the Oversight Committee on Feb. 26, 2008, Payton gave a seemingly different version of why she'd aborted ECRMS.

"After the transition to Microsoft Exchange, the EOP also considered implementing a hardware and software system called ECRMS (Electronic Communications Records Management System) in order to improve and expand the existing message archiving process already in place. However, in late 2006, after consulting staff in OCIO (Office of the Chief Information Officer), I determined that ECRMS required additional investments and modifications if it was to fulfill the EOP's requirements for records management and archiving. While testing the process of loading email records into the ECRMS system, the team also found performance issues. For several reasons, including the need for additional modifications, the identified performance issues, and projected costs, the deployment of ECRMS was cancelled. Some of the hardware, software, and technical expertise gathered during the project were then used by OCIO for other projects.

The White House did not respond to repeated requests by CIOZone to speak to Payton.

{mospagebreak title=Alarm}

Payton's decision to drop ECRMS caught many by surprise and raised considerable concern.

Officials from NARA had participated in the development of requirements from ECRMS and had a proprietary interest in the system since NARA was ultimately responsible for retaining all documents and materials created by the Bush White House. According to NARA records of meetings with Payton, NARA noted that "even if it did take ECRMS 18 months to ingest the existing backlog of messages, the process would still be completed before Bush left office."

Carlos Solari seemed taken back by Payton's decision. In his interview with Oversight Committee staff members he stated he "absolutely" believed that ECRMS would be implemented, thought the "system got finished" and was "puzzled" as to why ECRMS had been rejected.

And several of those involved with ECRMS complained that Payton had unfairly characterized the system as a legacy - i.e. wagon wheel - technology and used that as an excuse to deep-six the system

McDevitt, who had put in three years supervising ECRMS's development, was so upset by Payton's decision that he cited it as one reason he resigned from his job in October 2006, according to a letter he later wrote Rep. Waxman.

More alarming to some was that in lieu of going with ECRMS, or bringing any one of numerous off-the-shelf, real time archival storage and retrieval systems that Bill Tolson notes had been available since 2000, Payton chose to do nothing - that is, stick with the journaling process and PST files that had been installed strictly as a temporary solution in 2002.

This decision drew fire from a number of sources including The National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington. "This just didn't make any sense," notes Meredith Fuchs, the organization's general counsel. "Even if an email archival system [such as ECRMS], is not completely adequate, it's better than having no real archival system at all."

When Payton began her tenure as White House CIO, it was left to her ultimately to account for the emails. This she did in testifying before the Committee on January 16, 2008, explaining that, despite the "2005 report" from McDevitt's team, the Grand Canyon size gap in the EOP archive system might simply be a mirage, the result of a miscalculation rather than a systemic systems failing. She said:

"The Committee has expressed concerns about allegations that EOP emails were not properly archived between 2003 and 2005. I am aware of a chart created by OCIO staff in late 2005 to early 2006 that identifies dates and EOP components for which email counts were thought to be low or non-existent during the 2003-2005 time period. Since that time, the OCRO (Office of Chief Researcher) staff came to have reservations about the tool used to collect the data in the chart.

"OCIO thus hired a contractor to perform a comprehensive re-inventory of existing archived messages by component and date. This re-inventory effort is nearly complete. OCIO has also begun an analysis of potential anomalies. Once both the re-inventory and analysis are complete, we will have a separate team do a quality assurance review to confirm the accuracy of the results. This process of re-inventory, analysis, and quality assurance is complex, labor intensive, and time-consuming. At this stage, OCRO does not know if any emails were not properly preserved."

In other words, maybe, just maybe - it would be a long time before anyone knew for sure - every last one of those emails could still be in the archives.

Even though White House spokeswoman Dana Perino had conceded on April 17, 2007, that, "I wouldn't rule out that there were a potential 5 million emails lost," Payton's testimony gave the EOP a new story to put out to the press. On January 17, 2008, the day after Payton testified, White House Press Secretary Tony Fratto stated at a press briefing: "I think to the best of what all the analysis we've been able to do, we have absolutely no reason to believe that any emails are missing; there's no evidence of that….We have not been able to note the absence of anything in our database."

In response, Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the Oversight Committee said: "At today's White House press briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto was asked about allegations that White House e-mails have been lost from White House servers. He stated in response: 'We have absolutely no reason to believe that any e-mails are missing." This statement is contrary to information that the White House provided to the Committee staff in a briefing on September 19, 2007. At this briefing, the White House showed staff a chart indicating that there were 473 days for which various entities in the Executive Office of the President had no archived e-mails."

{mospagebreak title=Stonewalled}

In addition to denying any problems existed, White House officials failed to respond to mounting inquiries and was seen as stalling when requested to provide information. As one official from the National Archives wrote in an October 2007 email:

"The Office of Administration through whom we are attempting to gain detailed technical information has been extremely guarded in their responses, and all communication has been conducted under a patina of legal caution. Whenever we solicit specific technical information, they reply for the most part that they are still in the process of conducting inventories."

Meanwhile, a number of organizations took legal action to ensure that emails weren't destroyed.

On September 5, the National Security Archive sued the White House seeking the recovery and preservation of e-mail messages.

"The Bush White House broke the law and erased our history by deleting those e-mail messages," National Security Archive director Tom Blanton said at the time. "The period of the missing email starts with the invasion of Iraq and runs through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina."

Added general counsel Meredith Fuchs said, "Without court oversight, there's no guarantee the White House will ever recover the missing e-mails or install an effective archiving system."

Soon after, the Watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) launched a similar suit, seeking not only to retrieve the missing emails, but charging that in the wake of the scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and eight fired U.S. attorneys, emails had been release showing that senior members of the Administration used Republican National Committee (RNC) email accounts to conduct official business.

"During the revelations about the role of the White House in the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, it became clear that the actual practices of at least some high level officials violate this purported policy," CREW said in its "Without a Trace" report, meaning that EOP officials shouldn't use outside email accounts for official business in accordance with Hatch Act, which prohibits government officials from using official resources for political purposes. "For example, [former presidential advisor] Karl Rove reportedly uses an outside email account maintained by the Republican National Committee (RNC) for about 95 percent of his email."

"There are two White House email issues," CREW's general counsel Anne Weismann told CIOZone. "One is the missing emails. The other is the purposeful use by top officials of RNC email accounts to avoid creating an official record."

Rove could not be reached to respond to CREW's charges.

Meanwhile, the White House contends that officials used the RNC accounts to avoid violating the Hatch Act. As a result, author David Gewirtz notes, EOP has been employing two email domains, EOP.GOV for official business and GWB43. com for political purposes. GWB43 is hosted by, a small Internet services company located in Chattanooga, Tenn.

In June 2007, the majority staff of the Oversight Committee issued an interim report of the investigation into the use of the RNC e-mail accounts by White House officials. The report found that more than 88 senior people including Karl Rove and Andrew Card, former White House Chief of Staff, had email accounts maintained by the RNC or the Bush Cheney '04 campaign. "In some cases White House personnel used RNC accounts almost exclusively," the Oversight Committee stated in a February 26, 2008, memorandum.

The memorandum went on to note that the RNC deleted most of these emails after 30 days. "One indication of the scale of the loss of White House email is the fact that the RNC has retained no email messages for 51 of the 88 White House officials with RNC accounts," the report continued.

"The case of Mr. Rove provides an example of the extent of the missing email. The RNC preserved only 130 emails sent by Mr. Rove prior to November 2003, and it preserved no emails sent to Mr. Rove during President Bush's first term. For the period RNC does have records, however, Mr. Rove was a prolific user of his RNC email account. In 2007, Rove frequently sent more than 100 emails per day and received over 200 emails."

This widespread deletion of electronic records, White House critics say is Watergate redux. In its "Without a Trace" report, Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, asserts:

"It's clear that the White House has been willfully violating the law, the only question now is to what extent? The ever changing excuses offered by the administration - that they didn't want to violate the Hatch Act, that staff wasn't clear on the law - are patently ridiculous. Very convenient that embarrassing - and potentially incriminating - emails have gone missing. It's the Nixon White House all over again."

Others like the former White House IT official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, disagree with this assessment. "This has been nothing but a series of hiccups and not a conspiracy," he maintains.

To date the Oversight Committee's investigation into the missing emails appear to have been largely blocked by a lack of cooperation from senior White House officials. "The White House appears to have produced only a small percentage of the documents that it believes to be responsive to the request," the Oversight Committee noted on February 26. "In addition, the White House is withholding without an assertion of Executive Privilege, an unknown number of documents that are described as being deliberate."

In a separate action from the suit it filed to retrieve missing e-mails, CREW filed a Freedom of Information Act Request to get the missing messages. To date CREW has yet to receive a single document from OA based on FOIA request, which made on March 29, 2007. This despite that fact that OA agreed to expedite CREW's request the following month. Then on June 16, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the Office of Administration "is not an agency subject to the FOIA" and granted the government's motion to dismiss CREW's request.

The CREW/National Security archives suits, which have been conjoined, haven't fared much better.

On March 18, 2008, Magistrate Judge John Facciola, hearing the suits in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, ordered EOP to show cause why it should not be required to make forensic copies of all computer hard drives and other storage media in the White House system including costs and burden of the copying process. Three days later Theresa Payton responded that most computers from the contested period had been replaced or -- if still in service   would be difficult to track down. She also reveled that White House standard procedure included wiping out or destroying information on hard drives prior to decommissioning them or reissuing them to new staff.

The White House also claimed that it couldn't keep track of old hard drives because asset management for computer parts wasn't invented until sometime after 2005. Actually, author David Gewirtz notes that asset management for computer parts has been around since the early 1980s, and possibly earlier.

As for those hard drives that hadn't been destroyed, it would be extremely costly and time consuming for the White House to institute an email retrieval program that entailed pulling data off each individual work station, the White House said in a sworn declaration filed with Judge Facciola. The judge subsequently ordered EOP to provide more precise information about the costs of forensic copying to preserve emails.

Payton later confessed that the White House had no computer back-up tapes with data written before May 23, 2003, and that it couldn't track the history of individual hard drives within the White House system that might contain emails.

On July 29, Judge Facciola denied an EOP's motion to reconsider and upheld previous recommendations that the court order EOP to search and preserve e-mails from individual workstations and portable media but declined to order forensic copying of all relevant workstations. In other words, the White House didn't have to use forensic copying, or imaging, to and retrieve missing emails, thereby saving the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Facciola noted in his decision that the use of forensic imaging to retrieve lost emails could run as much as $545,000 and take up to 1,600 hours.

"Time is running out," says Meredith Fuchs of The National Security Archive. "We have to do something now. Once the people in the White House dispense, the systems are taken out and the files are handed over to NARA. Their people aren't going to know how to analyze what's in them."

After January 2009, when a new president enters the White House, those files will begin gathering dust for 12 years in the National Archives. By the time they become public again, the brouhaha over missing emails will likely have long since been forgotten by everyone save, perhaps, a few historians who will be confronted with the daunting task of reconstructing a puzzle, the pieces of which may largely be lost or destroyed.

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