National Archives unsure how many White House emails will be saved
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday November 24, 2008

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The plans to retain and store records from George W. Bush's eight years in office is lacking in specifics and raises the serious possibility that millions of missing White House e-mails will be lost permanently, an independent government watchdog warned Monday.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is suing to force the Bush administration to account for the missing e-mails, obtained a copy of the National Archives and Records Administration's contingency plans for processing White House records. The eight-page plan (.pdf) contains few specific dates and warns of possible e-mail archiving complications relating to the ongoing lawsuit.

"The American people are at risk of losing the Bush administration’s electronic records,” warned Anne Weismann, CREW's top lawyer. “It is appalling that less than two months before the administration ends, the agency entrusted with preserving our nation's historical records still has very little information about what records it will be receiving. True to form, the White House is keeping both NARA and the public in the dark up to the very end."

The Archives' contingency plan notes that the outgoing administration will be leaving behind "50-100 times the volume of electronic materials and formats not previously dealt with." The strain, presumably caused by advances in technology and the increasing reliance on e-mail since Bush took office in 2001, is forcing the Archives to implement a new IT system.

The Presidential Records Act requires the Archive to catalog and retain White House records, which are officially owned by the public. The Archives outlines its plan to create a searchable database of White House memos and other text-based records, White House photo archives, the president's daily calendar of activities, the Secret Service list of White House visitors and the White House's e-mail records.

The Archives says it is "confident that it has the ability to ingest the Bush emails, [but] the timing of this ingestion is dependent on the completion of any ongoing restoration project for the MS Exchange emails undertaken by the EOP."

Soon after Bush entered office, the White House dismantled the Automated Records Management System (ARMS), which President Clinton had implemented to archive e-mails. The system's replacement, MS Exchange, was unreliable and led to between 5 and 10 million e-mails being deleted from White House servers.

CREW and another group are suing to force the White House to detail how many e-mails are missing and whether they can be recovered from computer back-up tapes. It is the outcome of that lawsuit that the Archives says it is waiting on. However, the Archives says it "has a high level of confidence" that it will be able to save most of the e-mails, estimating there are "hundreds of millions of messages" to be incorporated into its new system.

The plan, CREW argues, reveals an agency that is still in the planning stages and begging to be trusted.