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Screwing up email the White House way

While the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has shown itself to be quite proficient at inappropriately deleting emails, for a real lesson in how it’s done you’ve got to turn to the White House.

For President Bush, who expresses disdain for e-mail, the White House system of electronic record-keeping is a good match.

Even if Bush used e-mail, it might get lost in the problem-plagued White House computer system.

“I don’t want you reading my personal stuff,” the president explained to newspaper editors three years ago on why he doesn’t send electronic messages.

On Capitol Hill and in federal court, a congressional committee and two private groups are pushing for information on how the White House has handled its e-mail for the past six years and whether officials there complied with records-retention laws.

The picture emerging from testimony and court filings is one of disregard for fundamental principles that well-run private companies adhere to routinely. By one estimate, over 1,000 days of e-mail are missing from various White House offices.

“I would call this negligence,” said Mark Epstein, director of technical services for Cataphora Inc., a California company that specializes in retrieval and analysis of electronic information.

The White House’s first mistake, Epstein and other technical experts say, was moving to a new e-mail setup without first setting up an archiving system that would allow speedy, reliable searches and recovery of electronic messages.

“This is the first time I’ve personally run across this kind of process for archiving; the White House relied on human beings to do specific manual processes on a regular basis and I would not recommend it,” said William Tolson, who has consulted on e-mail problems for hundreds of companies and state and local governments.


The White House e-mail troubles began in 2002 with a decision to upgrade electronic message capabilities and move from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange.

Prior to launching Microsoft Exchange for e-mail, there should have been full-scale testing of an archiving system, e-mail experts said. In addition, both the existing archiving system and a new one should have run at the same time until the new system was fully proven.


Lawyers say the shortcomings in the White House’s system would have prompted major legal problems had the White House been operating in the private sector.

“The penalties for regulated companies that have failed to implement effective e-mail archive solutions have been quite severe, penalties often imposed by branches of the federal government,” said James K. Wagner Jr., a lawyer and co-founder of DiscoverReady LLC, a firm that assists companies in gathering and reviewing electronic documents.

So a few things went wrong. Big deal, could have happened to anyone. I mean, sure, in the real world you’d get fired, and maybe sued or arrested, but this is the Bush administration. I figure there’s a Presidential Medal of Freedom in it for someone.

Besides, it’s not like there was anything important in those three years’ worth of emails. Right?

In a sworn declaration, White House official Theresa Payton told the court on Jan. 16 that “substantially all” e-mails from 2003 to 2005 should be contained on back-up computer tapes.

However, at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Feb. 26, the panel’s Democrats released a White House document that called that claim into question.

E-mail was missing from a White House archive for the period of Sept. 30-Oct. 6, 2003 from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, the White House document states. The backup tape covering that seven-day period was not created until Oct. 21, 2003, raising the possibility that e-mail was missing from the earlier period. That time span was in the earliest days of the Justice Department’s probe into whether anyone at the White House leaked the CIA identity of Valerie Plame. Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was eventually convicted by a jury of four felonies in the leak probe.

See? Nothing to see here, move along. I mean, if we can’t trust our elected officials to take care of their secret communications, whom can we trust? AP link via FDL.

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One Comment

  1. Casey OBrien says:

    I am not a Bush fan, but it seems that if all government email is in the public domain, then it will not be utilized by government personnel. This would make governmental operations even less efficient than they are now, and inhibit the ability of personnel distributing information to other personnel. For example, one police agency from transmitting information to another.