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No Progress on White House Email

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/waxman_2.jpgRep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) (WDCpix)

With 11 months to go, the Bush administration has still not addressed the matter of millions of missing White House e-mails.

A report from the House oversight committee this week may have been filled with arcane technical jargon, but the topic was far from obscure. The committee learned that possibly more than five million missing e-mails are probably lost- and for three years any member of the administration with a White House password, from the vice president to a low-level bureaucrat, was able to delete any e-mail. In addition, the current administration archivist said the administration hadn’t even started to locate thousands of emails sent from the White House, but used a Republican National Committee address.

Congress_4378.jpg
Congress_4378.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

In a committee interview made public Tuesday, former White House archivist Steven McDevitt said that between 2002 and 2005 any one with a WhiteHouse.gov account could delete e-mail’s sent on the White Houses’ server. McDevitt told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he fixed the flaw in mid-2005- but found that hundreds of days of e-mails had been lost.

Theresa Payton, the White House’s current archivist, revealed at a hearing Tuesday that the administration was only in “phase one” of a three-phase program to locate those missing WhiteHouse.gov e-mails. Morevoer, Payton admitted to having no plan in place to locate thousands of e-mails sent from Republican National Committee accounts, including hundreds of e-mails sent by Karl Rove, that discussed official White House business. E-mails sent from political addresses that pertain to government business must under law be put in the public record.

Democratic committee members expressed outrage over the administration’s belated and limited response to finding the e-mails.

“You may not be intending to run out the clock,” Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) lectured Payton, “but you must be aware that you don’t have much time left.”

Waxman stressed that not only were the missing e-mails a violation of the Presidential Records Act, but they also likely provided critical information about decisions like invading Iraq.

Indeed, when Waxman disclosed in January that the White House had told committee staff they were 473 days of no archived e-mails, the left-wing blogosphere focused on those 473 dates. Some coincided with the beginning of Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the leaking of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. Others dated from the time it looked like Congress would investigate whether the White House manipulated intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But committee Democrats chose not to insinuate that the White House intentionally deleted e-mails on potentially incriminating topics. Instead, they focused on the broader record-keeping problem — when the White House switched from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange in 2002 the administration got rid of its electronic archiving system. And never replaced it.

Back in January 2004, the National Archives and Records Administration first complained that emails were not being properly stored. In January 2006, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said the same, when the White House couldn’t produce e-mails dealing with the leaking of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent.

Waxman’s chief source was McDevitt, the White House chief information officer between 2003 and 2006. McDevitt described the e-mail archiving system as “primitive.” In October 2005, three months after McDevitt said he corrected the security flaw that allowed any White House employee access to the server, he supervised a study on missing e-mails. He determined that between 2003 and 2005 there were 473 days in which there were no stored White House e-mails and 700 days of unusually low e-mail traffic.

Republican committee members, though, contested McDevitt’s claims. They pointed out that he neither gave a sworn interview to the committee nor testified at the hearing. “It sets a bad precedent to take an unsworn series of statements like this where we can’t even ask the gentleman if those statements were his or not,” said Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Waxman responded that Republican members and staff spent two hours on Sunday questioning McDevitt and that both sides were limited by the White House discouraging McDevitt’s cooperation.

While how the committee got McDevitt to talk was questioned repeatedly by Republicans, what he said really wasn’t.

“Steven McDevitt said the e-mail storage process was primitive,” William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said to current [Chief Information Officer] Payton. “Do you disagree?”

“The problem with this statement is that it predates me,” replied Payton. Payton continually generated frustration among committee Democrats for claiming ignorance about all White House activities before 2006.

Committee Ranking Republican Tom Davis (Va.), however, saluted Payton for finding some of what was lost between 2002 and 2005. “Last Friday, Ms. Payton briefed committee staff that the 473

day gap has been reduced to 202 days,” Davis said, “The restoration and recovery process continues.”

Waxman countered that at the pace Payton is going there’s little chance so he can finish the process during the next administration. When Payton admitted she hadn’t responded to requests from the National Archives, Waxman said she “frittered away” the last year.

Even if Payton proves Waxman wrong and recovers all the missing WhiteHouse.gov e-mails, the Bush administration record will still have significant holes. That’s because nobody appears to be even trying to recover RNC.gov missives.

“Are you aware of any specific, concrete steps the White House has taken to comply with the request by [National Archives Counsel Gary] Stern to obtain RNC e-mails?” asked Jack Welch (D-Ma.).

“I don’t know,” replied Alan Weinstein, who along with Stern, represented the National Archives at the hearing.

“That was before my time,” answered Payton.

The RNC e-mails include about 140,000 letters written by Rove when he was White House political director. These e-mails must be archived if they involve White House business. The committee reported last June that the majority of Rove’s e-mails likely were official business as they were sent to government agencies.

So historians, journalists and the public might not ever know what Rove and other White House officials were saying about declaring war on Iraq and many other issues. It’s also shrouded in mystery who, if anyone, broke into the White House’s Microsoft Exchange storage system between 2002 and 2005. The next 11 months will determine if these are problems this White House can continue to largely ignore.

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