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Renner: Millions of White House Emails Missing

Millions of White House Emails Missing

By Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report

Friday 13 April 2007

A report Thursday details steps taken by the Bush administration to intentionally subvert the mandatory archiving of official email.

The report, issued by the watch-dog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), entitled "WITHOUT A TRACE: The Missing White House Emails and Violations of the Presidential Records Act," states that, "The White House has willfully ignored evidence of a systematic problem with its internal email archiving system," resulting in the loss of approximately five million emails. The report also states that, "Top Bush administration officials have deliberately used outside email accounts to avoid creating a record of their actions," a charge that is being investigated by Congress.

The Presidential Records Act requires presidents to preserve all records that relate to the "activities, deliberations, decisions and policies that reflect the performance of [the president's] constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties...."

The report indicates that the Bush administration willfully dismantled the email archiving system put in place by the Clinton administration and did not replace it with an adequate method to keep track of administration email, resulting in the loss of millions of messages. A detailed plan to recover the lost messages was presented to then-White House Counsel Harriet Miers, but was never acted upon. This, along with the use of outside email addresses for official business, could be criminal behavior in violation of the Presidential Records Act.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW said, "It's clear that the White House has been willfully violating the law - the only question now is to what extent?"

According to CREW's sources, the Office of Administration (OA) - the office in charge of information technology and record-keeping support for the president - discovered a massive failure of the White House email archiving system in October 2005. Their analysis revealed that during a two-and-a-half-year span, between March 2003 and October 2005, there were "hundreds of days in which emails were missing...." The OA concluded that, in total, "over five million email messages were missing."

The report also states that two sources independently confirmed that the Executive Office of the President (EOP) currently has "no effective email records management system in place." Currently, the EOP archiving system simply takes emails en mass and saves them on a hard-drive without sorting or organizing them. According to the report, "This system does not have adequate safeguards in place to ensure that stored messages are not modified or deleted; nor is there any way to assess or audit the completeness of the stored messages."

It is unknown what was contained in the missing emails, but during this timeframe the White House was presiding over the invasion of Iraq and dealing with fall-out from investigations such as the Abramoff corruption probe, the investigation into falsified pre-Iraq war intelligence, and the grand jury investigation into the leaking of covert CIA agent Valarie Plame Wilson's identity.

As previously reported by Truthout, in a letter from January 2006, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald noted that his team had "learned 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 the normal archiving process on the White House computer system." His letter was filed during the discovery phase of the perjury and obstruction of justice trial against former vice presidential staffer I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

According to Naomi Seligman Steiner, communications director for CREW, the "Fitzgerald letter totally negates the White House response that only emails from Republican National Committee (RNC) accounts were not archived."

In a press briefing Thursday, White House Spokesperson Dana Perino said, "We have a policy in which any emails that are sent to somebody like myself at an Executive Office of President or a White House email address are archived and retained indefinitely, forever, so that we always have those."

The White House also said that in an attempt to comply with laws that prevent White House staff from using tax payer-funded resources for political campaigns, they "may not have preserved all emails that deal with White House business." On Thursday, Perino said, "We don't have an idea on the universe of the number of emails that were lost."

Top White House officials have apparently been using the RNC email system to conduct official business. The RNC had a policy of deleting emails from their servers after 30 days. This policy was changed in 2004, but until recently, email users could manually delete emails from their RNC accounts.

Chairman of the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee Henry Waxman has been investigating the use of unofficial email accounts by Bush administration officials. Thursday, his staff met behind closed doors with RNC Counsel Rob Kelner to discuss the situation. In a subsequent letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Waxman said that the RNC has email archives dating back to 2004, but "has apparently destroyed all email records from White House officials from 2001, 2002 and 2003." Also, Waxman said that the RNC only has archives for 35 of the 50 White House officials who had RNC email accounts. "This means that the RNC appears to have no email records for approximately 15 White House officials," Waxman said.

According to Waxman's letter, the RNC had special email procedures for Special Assistant to the President Karl Rove. According to Kelner, the RNC does not have any archived emails prior to 2005 for Mr. Rove. This, despite the reports that Rove uses his RNC account for the majority of his correspondence. Waxman said that Kelner "did not give any explanation for the emails missing from Mr. Rove's account, but he did acknowledge that one possible explanation is that Mr. Rove personally deleted his emails from the RNC server." According to the letter, the RNC instituted a special policy for Rove's emails some time in 2005 that prevented him from being able to delete his emails from the RNC server.

Steve Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, called this "an electric situation and we are all just waiting to see where the lightning strikes." He also said that, "This is a challenge to Congress to get to the bottom of this," referring to the missing emails. According to Aftergood, under the Presidential Records Act, the National Archives has "a clear legal obligation to preserve and protect historical records." The National Archives did not return phone calls for comment.


Matt Renner is a reporter for Truthout.

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