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'Primitive' White House technology lost more than 1M emails over 1,000 days, former employee says
Nick Juliano
Published: Wednesday February 27, 2008

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Questions remain over Cheney's missing Plame e-mails

The internal workings of the White House that caused it to lose perhaps millions of internal e-mails over several years is becoming clearer, but with that sharper focus comes diminishing hopes among Democrats and open-government activists that history will ever get the full picture of how the Bush administration operated.

At a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday, a former White House computer technician outlined the administration's shortcomings in implementing a "primitive" e-mail archiving system that created a high risk the information would be lost.

Steven McDevitt, who worked for the administration from 2002 to 2006, also doubled previously reported estimates of the number of days of missing e-mails. Investigators for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee previously said e-mails were missing for 473 days; McDevit said in written testimony to the committee that the number was closer to 1,000 days. He also said at least 1 million e-mails were believed to have gone missing; activists have estimated the number of missing e-mails is closer to 10 million.

The exact number of missing e-mails is unknown, but several days on which e-mails were not archived covered key dates in a Justice Department inquiry into the roles of Vice President Dick Cheney and his aides in leaking the identity of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson. As RAW STORY previously reported, no e-mails were archived on the very day the probe was announced and White House officials were ordered to maintain anything that could become evidence in the investigation that ended the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's former chief of staff, on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

As The Associated Press reports, Tuesday's hearing shed some light on what happened to e-mails from the Vice President's office, but many questions remain unanswered.

For the first time, a former White House computer technician went public with the details. Steven McDevitt revealed in written statements submitted to Congress how a plan was developed to try to recover the missing e-mail for [Special Prosecutor Patrick] Fitzgerald.

Ultimately, 250 pages of electronic messages were retrieved from the personal e-mail accounts of officials in Cheney's office, but whether that amounted to all the relevant e-mail is a question that may never be answered.

McDevitt made clear that it was a sensitive issue inside the White House.

"I worked with ... White House Counsel on efforts to provide an explanation to the special prosecutor," McDevitt wrote. "This included providing a briefing to the special prosecutor's staff on this subject."

Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee's chairman, also said during Tuesday's hearing that the Republican National Committee, which had hosted e-mail addresses used for official business by White House adviser Karl Rove and others, "has no intention of trying to restore the missing White House e-mails."

The Washington Post provides some background:

Administration officials have acknowledged that Rove and many other White House officials routinely used RNC accounts for government business, despite rules requiring that they conduct such business through official communications channels. The RNC deleted all e-mails until 2004, when it exempted White House officials from its e-mail purging policy. About 80 White House aides used RNC accounts for official government business, committee staff members said. Rove, for example, sent or received 140,000 e-mails on RNC servers from 2002 to 2007, and more than half involved official ".gov" accounts, the panel has said. The RNC dispute is part of a broader debate over whether the Bush administration has complied with long-standing statutory requirements to preserve official White House records -- including those reflecting potentially sensitive policy discussions -- for history and in case of future legal demands.

Whether historians will ever get a full picture of internal deliberations remains to be seen. But Tuesday's hearing went a long way toward exposing problems with the White House and RNC. McDevitt, according to the Associated Press, also revealed that:

_The White House had no complete inventory of e-mail files.

_Until mid-2005 the e-mail system had serious security flaws, in which "everyone" on the White House computer network had access to e-mail. McDevitt wrote that the "potential impact" of the security flaw was that there was no way to verify that retained data had not been modified.

_There was no automatic system to ensure that e-mails were archived and preserved.

The National Security Archive, which is suing the White House over its poor record keeping, said Tuesday that the hearing revealed incompetence on the part of the White House, which also ignored warnings that its e-mails were not being archived in accordance with legal requirements.

"The White House's witnesses disclaimed knowledge and responsibility for the e-mail problem," said Meredith Fuchs, the group's general counsel, in a statement. "The [National Archives] witnesses said that they are waiting for the White House to take action. But no one is doing anything and time is running out."