White House Admits Losing Iraq War E-Mails

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

January 16, 2008 – Very, very late last night, just before midnight, the Bush administration submitted a filing in CREW v. Executive Office of the President, our lawsuit challenging the failure of the White House to preserve and restore millions of missing emails. We first documented the massive loss of White House e-mails in our April 2007 report, WITHOUT A TRACE [0]: The Missing White House Emails and the Violations of the Presidential Records Act.

The latest filing from the Bush administration raises some very troubling questions that the White House clearly does not want to answer. This is how CREW’s chief counsel, Anne Weismann, described the situation:

With this new filing, the White House has admitted that although it has long known about the missing emails, it did nothing to recover them, or discover how and why they went missing in the first place. The missing emails are important historical records that belong not to the Bush administration, but to the American people. As a result, the public deserves a full accounting and hopefully, now that the matter is before a federal court, we will get one.

The White House has now admitted that it does not have an effective system for storing and preserving emails. This is no mere technicality; it is this failure that led to the likely destruction of over 10 million email. What the White House has not explained is why it abandoned the electronic record-keeping system used by the prior administration — a system that properly preserved White House email — but did not replace it with another effective and appropriate system.

The White House has also admitted that the only safeguard it has to its patently inadequate method for preserving email (dumping them in files that are put on EOP servers) is back-up tape media. These back-up copies, however, are only a “snapshot” of what was on the server at the time of the back-up. In other words they are not comprehensive, as the White House concedes.

Even more troubling, the White House has now admitted that until October 2003, the White House recycled its back-up tapes, which contained the only copies of emails deleted prior to that date. What the White House has not explained is why it changed its policy of preserving all back-up tapes — instituted in March of 2000 when the Clinton administration discovered that its system did not fully preserve all email from the Office of the Vice President — at the same time it decided to dismantle the existing electronic record-keeping system, with no replacement at hand.

The deletion of millions of email beginning in March 2003 coupled with the White House’s destruction of back-up copies of those deleted email mean that there are no back-up copies of emails deleted during the period March 2003 through October 2003. The significance of this time-period cannot be overstated: the U.S. went to war with Iraq, top White House officials leaked the covert identity of Valerie Plame Wilson and the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into their actions.

The White House now claims there is a lack of documentation supporting both the fact that email are missing and the volume of missing email. Yet in January 2006, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, in a letter to Scooter Libby’s lawyers, stated unequivocally: “We have learned that not all email of the Office of Vice President and the Executive Office of President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through the normal archiving process on the White House computer system.” Moreover, when the problem was uncovered the White House Office of Administration created abundant documentation that included multiple estimates of the volume of missing email, not a single chart that the White House now suggests is the only documentation. Could it be that having now destroyed the evidence documenting the missing email problem, the White House feels free to retreat from its acknowledgment to Mr. Fitzgerald that White House emails are missing?

Also missing from the White House’s latest explanation of the missing email is why, more than two years after it discovered the problem, the White House still cannot say what happened, why it happened and how many email were affected. And the White House has yet to offer an explanation for why it never acted to recover any of the missing emails, even when presented with a recovery plan by its own Office of Administration.

It is perfectly clear why the White House has used every strategic maneuver it can think of to avoid answering any questions about the missing email: its answers are likely to raise more questions than they answer. That, years after the problem was discovered, the White House is still questioning whether or not there is even a problem is deeply disturbing.

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