President Barack Obama has a problem.
In February, the Obama administration, siding with former President George W. Bush, tried to kill a lawsuit that sought to recover what could be millions of missing White House e-mails in a stunning reversal of Obama's rhetoric about Bush secrecy on the campaign trail.
Two advocacy groups had sued the Executive Office of the President, including one of the groups that helped derail former House Speaker Tom DeLay. They said that large amounts of White House e-mail documenting Bush's eight years in office were missing, and that the government needed to undertake an extensive recovery effort. The emails were seen as crucial as the "deleted" days include ones in the run up to the Iraq war and the outing of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson.
In March, the groups suspended their lawsuit, noting that the Obama team was willing to negotiate a settlement. Since then, little progress has been made.
"It's very frustrating," says Anne Weismann, Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington chief counsel, told Mother Jones for an article Wednesday. "Here we are, nine-plus months after [Obama's inauguration], and we're really not any closer to feeling the missing emails have been restored. It's kind of nutty to me that it's taken them so many months."
"Among the plaintiffs' biggest gripes," writes Mother Jones' Nick Baumann, "is that the Obama team is using the Bush administration's strategy—a flawed one, the groups say—to resurrect the missing emails. The White House has hired private contractors to conduct a statistical analysis of its archived email to determine on which days messages are unaccounted for. But that's not standard private-sector practice in these sorts of cases, says Weismann. It's far more common for businesses that have lost emails to restore their backup tapes and compare those results with their archives, she says.
The two administrations have spent at least $9.4 million on their effort to recover the emails, more than double that which was originally appropriated for the task. Citizens for Ethics says they really don't know where the money's gone. The Bush administration had told CREW they'd located 38 boxes of documents that might be relevant to their Freedom of Information Act request, but the Obama administration has released very few pages.
During its first term, the Bush White House failed to install electronic record-keeping for e-mail when it switched to a new system, allegedly resulting in millions of messages that could not be found.
The Bush White House "discovered the problem" in 2005 and rejected a proposed solution.
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.
Ironically, Cheney's office is missing emails from the very day President Bush told reporters he'd "take care of" whatever staff member had actually leaked the CIA agent's name.
"If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is," Bush said Sept. 30, 2003. "And if the person has violated the law, the person will be taken care of."
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.
Emails are missing from at least some of 473 days of Bush's presidency.
The White House did not respond to Baumann's request for comment.