Missing e-mails should be on backup tapes, White House CIO says

E-mails from the White House, which watchdog groups alleged to be improperly deleted between 2003 and 2005, may exist on backup tapes, the White House chief information officer claims in court documents filed yesterday.

During the 2006 Valerie Plame incident, in which presidential aides were found to have leaked Plame's CIA identity to the media, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald disclosed that not all e-mail traffic at the White House and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney was preserved properly during certain time periods in 2003. Such preservation is required under the Presidential Records Act. The White House blamed the oversight on a technical glitch. In October 2007, the government watchdog groups National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, both based in Washington, filed lawsuits requesting that the courts order the White House to produce the e-mails -- estimated to total between 5 million to 10 million -- that were improperly deleted from White House computer servers.

On Jan. 8, 2008, a federal magistrate ordered the White House to reveal within five business days whether copies of the missing e-mails had been stored on computer backup tapes.

"At this stage, this office does not know if any e-mails were not properly preserved in the archiving process," said Theresa Payton, CIO of the Office of Administration in the Executive Office of the President. Her statement appeared in a declaration filed with the court in response to the Jan. 8 order.

"However, in view of this office's practice in the 2003-2005 time period of regularly creating backup tapes for the EOP network, which includes servers containing e-mails, and in view of this office's practice of preserving all such backup tapes from October 2003 to present, the backup tapes should contain substantially all the e-mails sent or received in the 2003-2005 time period."

The office is trying to determine if there may be anomalies in "e-mail counts for any particular days" during the time period in question, which would result in the potential failure to properly archive messages, Payton wrote.

An investigation is under way to determine whether the alleged missing e-mails resulted from the White House's failure to properly archive messages. Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, said in a written statement that the White House's explanation raises more questions. "The White House seems to be changing its story," Fuchs wrote. "This declaration may mean that records about policy and decisions in the Executive Office of the President are not entirely lost, but in many respects, it raises more questions. We still do not know what was lost, why it was lost, and what steps we have to take to recover it -- assuming it is still recoverable.

"While finding out some information from the White House has been a victory, I fear we have many battles ahead of us to preserve the documentary history of the government for eventual access," she said.

Payton also noted in her declaration that prior to October 2003, backup tapes were recycled "consistent with industry best practices relating to tape media management for disaster recovery backup systems."

Fuchs responded to that point, writing, "It strikes me as odd that they recognized a problem and changed their practice in 2003 to start saving the e-mail backups, but four and a half years later, they have not yet figured out whether anything of significance happened."

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