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Matt Renner: Email Users Could've Erased Records

White House Email Users Could Have Erased Records

By Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report
Wednesday 27 February 2008

Destroyed email records may not be recovered before Bush leaves office.

During a technical and tense Congressional hearing, the testimony of current and former White House officials and the head of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) revealed a possible explanation for the loss of millions of White House email records.

Previous investigations revealed the Bush administration removed the White House email archiving system put in place by the Clinton administration, and failed to replace it. Instead of implementing a standard archiving system like the ones used by businesses or other Federal agencies, the White House set up a procedure that amounted to taking email records and manually storing them on a hard drive.

The Bush archiving system was characterized as "primitive" by Steven McDevitt, a former information technology specialist in the White House Office of Administration. In 2002, McDevitt warned White House lawyers and administrative staff the stopgap system of manually archiving records was deeply flawed because an individual user could tamper with the records without leaving any evidence of their malfeasance behind.

"In mid-2005, prior to the discovery of the potential email issues, a critical security issue was identified and corrected. During this period it was discovered that the file servers and the file directories used to store the retained email .pst files were accessible by everyone on the EOP network," McDevitt wrote on page nine of his sworn statement. The storage method "provided no mechanism or audit trail that tracked changes to data files or the activities performed by users or system administrators. The integrity of the data could be called into question because it was not possible to ensure that inappropriate action, either intentional or unintentional, could not occur," McDevitt wrote in his statement.

Congressman John Sarbanes (D-Maryland) implied the archiving system had been intentionally destroyed by the Bush administration to allow White House staff to cover their tracks and erase evidence of wrongdoing.

"I have to believe that [American citizens] would find it completely implausible that this amount of email would just disappear by accident. And I mean to imply what I'm implying," Sarbanes said.

The House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing was billed as an examination of possible violations of the Presidential Records Act (PRA) - a law that is supposed to force presidents to retain all the documents and records of their office and the office of the vice president. Two alleged violations of the PRA have surfaced as a result of previous investigations.

Internal White House Email Records Destroyed

In 2005, as a result of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson's identity, staff at the White House Office of Administration (OA) discovered a massive hole in the archived email records. This hole was estimated at ten million missing emails, including entire days for which all email records had been erased. The discovery of these missing records led to an investigation by the information technology staff. According to McDevitt, the staff analyzed the situation and created a recovery plan to try and restore some of the lost records by using emergency data backup tapes. Instead of implementing the recovery plan, the Bush administration brought in Theresa Payton to take charge of the situation.

Payton was a witness in Tuesday's hearing. She explained her office had scrapped the recovery plan, and started over from scratch, causing a delay that could extend past the Bush presidency.

When asked about her reasoning for essentially throwing out the work of a 15-member team of internal White House staff, Payton said she was not made aware of a 250-page report prepared by McDevitt's team and that she found their work to be unreliable.

Congresswoman Eleanor Norton (D-Washington, DC) grilled Payton on this point. Norton demonstrated Payton had tried to downplay the analysis that had been done by McDevitt's team in a sworn statement Payton made to a court in January. In the statement, Payton challenged the assertion that OA staff had created a "detailed analysis" of the records problem. Payton stated she was only aware of "a chart created by a former employee," that detailed the problem. Payton asserted that the analysis done by McDevitt lacked "supporting documentation," prompting her office to start the entire analysis over again.

"This is amazing testimony given the position that you were in and the post you held," Norton said, "why didn't you mention the 250-page supporting document in your declaration?"

"That document had not been made available to me. We produced a lot of documents in response to this. And so that document must not have been on the radar of my team to inform me," Payton responded.

Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) accused Payton of "kicking the can down the road," by restarting the analysis of the email problem from the beginning. Cummings called it "paralysis by diagnosis." Payton later said she could not guarantee the restarted email recovery process would be complete by the end of the Bush administration's final term.

No Progress in Recovery of Republican National Committee Emails

The hearing briefly touched on another set of missing email records Congressional investigators have asked for, but not received.

The investigation into the firing of nine US attorneys revealed an unknown number of emails were sent by White House staff using unofficial Republican National Committee (RNC) email accounts.

Many of these White House officials, including former aide Karl Rove, used these email accounts to conduct official business. It has been reported Rove used a private email account for 95 percent of his correspondence. These emails were supposed to be maintained and archived in accordance with the PRA, but the RNC destroyed much of the email. According to previous statements made by the RNC, their email archives also lacked security measures. Individuals were able to access the email server and erase email records manually.

Some RNC email records may have been preserved on backup tapes that are in possession of the RNC. However, the RNC and the White House have refused to turn over email records despite subpoenas for the information. During the hearing, NARA staff and White House staff said they were unaware of any email recovery effort in the works at the RNC.

Gary Stern, general counsel for NARA, reminded the Oversight Committee it is a Congressional responsibility to make the executive branch comply with the records law. "The PRA envisions that it is up to the Congress, when we are dealing with presidential records, to communicate with the White House," Stern said.

To date, Congress has not moved forward with any criminal proceedings against Bush administration officials, regardless of evidence gathered during their many investigations.

"It is important to remember what this hearing is about ... its important to know that this hearing is about getting a complete record of what happened inside the Bush White House. This will never occur unless the White House recovers the deleted RNC emails. We know today that this is not happening. It is a major disappointment and I think, a clear violation of the law," Congressman Henry Waxman (D-California) said in his closing statement.



Matt Renner is an assistant editor and Washington reporter for Truthout.

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