Court grants motion to search White House computers and preserve emails
Mike Sheehan
Published: Wednesday January 14, 2009

Print This  Email This

Update: Justice Department lawyer says missing emails may have been found

Hours after a District Court judge ordered employees of the president's executive office to search for missing White House emails from 2003-05, a Justice Department lawyer disclosed that a successful search for the emails has already been concluded.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Helen H. Hong had stated at a court hearing that "private contractors had helped find the e-mails by searching through an estimated 60,000 tapes that contain daily recordings of the entire contents of the White House computers as a precaution against an electronic disaster."

The judge's order came in response to a lawsuit by two watchdog groups. Anne Weisman, the counsel for one of those groups, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, responded to the Justice Department announcement by saying, "I'll believe it when I see it." She noted that officials have not described the procedures used to recover the emails and that she hoped their results could be verified by an independent expert.

The district court had granted an emergency request for an extended order "to protect missing White House e-mails," according to a press release from the second group, the National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute.

With President-elect Obama's inauguration looming just days away, the District Court of the District of Columbia issued the directive instructing the Executive Office of the President (EOP) to search its computers and ordering EOP staff "to surrender any media in their possession that may contain e-mails from March 2003 to October 2005."

In February of 2008, a former Bush administration employee said at a congressional hearing that the White House's "primitive" archiving system may have lost more than a million emails over 1,000 days.

Soon after Bush was first elected, as RAW STORY reported last November, the White House dismantled the records management system that President Bill Clinton had implemented, replacing it with an unreliable system that led to the massive number of email deletions from White House servers.

Similar communications losses apparently struck former top Bush adviser Karl Rove, when a Republican National Committee lawyer admitted in 2007 that at least four years of emails sent by Rove had "gone missing." The admission came as Congress investigated the controversial dismissals of US Attorneys by the Bush Justice Department.

Presently, all remaining Bush White House records are scheduled for transfer to the National Archives and Records Administration in less than a week.

"There is nothing like a deadline to clarify the issues," said the institute's director. "In six days the Bush Executive Office of the President will be gone and without this order, their records may disappear with them. The White House will complain about the last minute challenge, but this is a records crisis of the White House's own making."

Excerpts from the Archive press release, available in full at this link, follow...


Counsel for the Archive, Sheila Shadmand from Jones Day made clear: "The White House has been on notice since we filed our lawsuit a year and a half ago that they would have to retrieve and preserve their e-mail. Instead of coming clean and telling the public what they have been doing to solve the crisis, they refused to say anything. At this point, it is critical to preserve evidence that can help get to the bottom of the problem and prevent it from happening again."

Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola has scheduled an emergency status conference today at 2 p.m. to consider additional measures that may be necessary to protect the records during the transition. (Courtroom 6 of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse)

The Archive filed its emergency motion for an extended preservation order on March 11, 2008. After considering the objections of the White House, Magistrate Judge Facciola issued two reports, on April 24 and July 29, 2008, recommending that District Judge Henry H. Kennedy issue an order requiring search, surrender and preservation of the computer workstations and external media devices, such as CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, and external hard drives. Today's order adopts those reports and recommendations, granting in part the Archive's emergency motion.

The National Security Archive filed its lawsuit on September 5, 2007 against the Executive Office of the President and NARA, seeking to preserve and restore missing White House e-mails. A virtually identical lawsuit filed subsequently by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has been consolidated with the Archive's lawsuit.