The case of the missing e-mails

White House, agencies face practical and policy questions as congressional probe widens

This sounds like the administration's version of 'the dog ate my homework.' ' Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

Kevin Dietsch

The search for missing White House e-mails amid increased congressional scrutiny of the Justice Department's dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys spilled over this month into a sweeping request for 17 agencies to turn over e-mail records. In the process, the matter has raised questions about record-keeping, archiving and the use of commercial services for government work.

The congressional inquiry expanded to the Republican National Committee and federal agencies in large part because of the discovery that about 50 past and current employees of the Bush administration used e-mail accounts hosted on an RNC server, domains such as 'gwb43.com' and 'rnchq.org.' By using these accounts, they effectively bypassed the White House archiving system.

Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent letters April 12 to 17 major departments and independent agencies, requesting that they take an inventory of their e-mail archives and prepare summaries of any e-mails from or to White House employees using such addresses.

Also on April 12, an advocacy group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, announced its sources had revealed that 5 million e-mails, generated between March 2003 and October 2005, were missing from the White House archives. White House acting spokeswoman Dana Perino, at a press briefing the next day, didn't dispute that figure.

An earlier scandal over missing e-mails, involving Vice President Gore's office in 2000, prompted the Bush administration in 2001 to announce plans for extensive changes in how the e-mail and archiving system worked.

An information technology systems review conducted by the Bush administration resulted in an extensive modernization effort that began in 2001 and included modernizing the e-mail and archiving system.

'President Bush intends to create a White House chief information officer position to oversee the executive office's systems, the General Accounting Office has reported,' GCN reported in June 2001. 'The new administration is developing and updating the executive office's policies for maintaining federal and presidential records.'

A former executive branch official with knowledge of the IT infrastructure at the White House said the process to modernize the systems began in President Bush's first term. In the interim, the White House continued to use the e-mail system that was in place during the Clinton administration.

'The system still was maintaining record-keeping requirements, but it was in need of modernization,' the former official said.

The White House e-mail system actually is a combination of systems that together fulfill the requirements for e-mail processing and records-keeping. According to the former official, the White House network operates as a sensitive-but-unclassified network. Classified information is processed by a separate, limited-access network.

There are few other details available concerning the e-mail or archiving infrastructure in place at the White House. Northrop Grumman held a managed services contract for e-mail and archive systems for a number of years but lost the business in 2002 to Unisys. Lisa Meyer, a Unisys spokeswoman, declined to answer any questions about the contract.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, disputed the White House claim that the e-mails were lost. 'This sounds like the administration's version of 'the dog ate my homework,' ' he said on the Senate floor. 'They say they have not been preserved. I don't believe that.'You can't erase e-mails, not today. They've gone through too many servers.'

Waxman's committee apparently agrees. Committee and White House staff members have been conferring to choose a third-party computer forensics expert who will look at the executive branch system and figure out what needs to be done to locate or recover the missing data.

Technologically speaking, many experts also agree to a large degree with Leahy's statement.

'I'm pretty confident'those e-mails are not lost,' said Matt Smith, president of LiveOffice, a company specializing in message archiving and compliance solutions.
A GAO report in 2001 found that the Clinton White House made use of backup tapes to archive records, which led to the e-mail recovery problems.

If the White House is still using tape backups for its archiving, Smith said, that could be some of the problem with the 5 million missing e-mails. 'Backup tapes are notorious for being unreliable,' he said. For example, after an employee of a trust company in Oregon accidentally wiped out the firm's database, Smith said, the company found that its backup tapes were useless.

Bill Lyons, chief executive officer of AXS-One, a records compliance management company, agreed that a backup tape archiving system is problematic. 'It is costly and time-consuming' to find information, he said. 'If that is what the White House has, you'll probably get the vast majority [of records] but never know for certain that you got all of them.'

The even bigger challenge is to craft an archiving system that captures all the various forms of electronic data, while creating a real-time index of all the information to make it easier to locate in the future, Lyons said.

Text messages on cell phones and personal digital assistants, instant messages on desktop computers, e-mail on Web-based systems ' all of those could also fall under the provisions of the Presidential Records Act, he said, but few archiving systems are set up to capture them. 'The White House needs a policy [that is] a combination of very strict policies on what you can and can't do,' he said.

Maintaining, identifying and retrieving e-mails is not an insignificant project. And the workload may grow larger, as electronic records continue to grow exponentially and Congress, with a new zeal for oversight, requests more of those records from the executive branch.

'Getting your arms around e-mails and official records is a huge issue,' said a former agency CIO, now in the private sector, who asked not to be named. 'People confuse federal records with e-mails in general. Less than 5 percent of e-mails fall under the definition of a federal record [a decision, action or direction] that needs to be preserved,' the former CIO said. Much of the challenge is training workers to know what to save; so is getting people to clean out overloaded e-mail boxes of unneeded correspondence. But the bigger burden, many agree, isn't so much on IT staffs in gathering e-mails as it is on agency legal teams to review the documents.

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