Congress Probes Case Of The Missing White House E-Mails

Bush administration officials put some of the blame on a two-year transition from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange.
Taking a break from grilling pro baseball players, Congress on Tuesday held a hearing to try to get to the bottom of the growing scandal of the missing White House e-mail archives.

California Rep. Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, briefly outlined the ongoing saga of the White House e-mails in his opening statement, noting that the Bush administration in 2002 effectively dismantled the Automatic Records Management (ARM) System instituted by the Clinton administration in 1994.

The White House "intentionally dismantled an effective system and replaced it with a primitive alternative that just didn't work," said Waxman. "It initiated its own study of missing e-mails in 2005 and now derisively attacks its own work as incompetent and grossly inaccurate."

Theresa Payton, CIO for the White House Office of Administration, said in her prepared statement that the incoming Bush administration transitioned from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange over a two-year period from 2002-2004, and that the ARM System established by the previous administration did not work properly with Exchange.

"ARMS was a custom-designed application," Payton testified, "and I understand that it was discovered that it just could not be effectively integrated with Microsoft Exchange."

As a result, thousands or even millions of e-mail messages to and from White House officials -- many of them generated during the crucial period in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, in March 2003 -- have proven to be irretrievable. The White House has given various and conflicting responses on the matter of the lost e-mails. In April 2007 White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said at a press conference, "I wouldn't rule out that there were a potential 5 million e-mails lost."

Waxman's committee recently made public a 2005 White House study that identified 473 separate days in which no e-mails were saved from various offices within the executive branch.

Last month, however, another White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, said, "We have no reason to believe that any e-mails, at all, are missing."

Two Washington, D.C., watchdog groups, the National Security Archive and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, have filed suit against the administration in U.S. district court to force the recovery of the e-mails and the establishment of an effective archiving system for electronic communications at the White House. Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, said that the problem is not unique to Republicans or to the Bush administration.

"This has been endemic to the White House since my organization sued the Reagan administration, the first Bush administration, and the Clinton White House about their preservation of e-mails," said Fuchs, who attended Tuesday's hearing. "The reality is that society has changed, electronic communications are what we're going to be doing for the foreseeable future, and it's time for the White House to catch up and be responsible."

Payton testified Tuesday before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the Bush administration had tried to institute its own archiving system, known as the Electronic Communications Records Management System, but ultimately failed.

"For several reasons, including the need for additional modifications, the identified performance issues, and projected costs, the deployment of ECRMS was canceled," Payton said.

Tuesday's testimony on Capitol Hill, Fuchs added, demonstrates that "the White House has been ignoring a series of warnings about its e-mail system being at risk."

Saying that the Bush administration "has continually resisted not just the efforts of this committee, but also those of the National Archives, which has the responsibility to carry out the Presidential Records Act," Waxman vowed to untangle the conflicting stories "and to finally start making progress on this important open-government issue."

The White House e-mail is hardly the full record, though, as David Gewirtz, an analyst and consultant and the author of Where Have All The E-Mails Gone?, a book about the White House electronic-records mess, points out.

"The broader question of the 103.6 million-plus e-mail messages that the White House may have sent though the Republican National Committee servers down at SMARTech in Chattanooga remains unexplored," Gewirtz writes on his blog.

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