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Politicos squabble over 'missing' White House e-mails

Democrats suggest administration must do more to restore messages to satisfy record-keeping requirements. Republicans say some e-mails were simply filed in "wrong digital drawer."

Democrats and Republicans were warring Tuesday over reports that the White House has "lost"--or simply failed to keep--archives of e-mails belonging to the president and his advisers.

Since last spring, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that an estimated 5 million messages from 473 days between 2003 and 2005 allegedly vanished from e-mail servers housed within the president's office.

A hearing convened by the committee gave Democratic leaders a new chance to press White House officials publicly on how and when they expect to recover the files.

"We still know virtually nothing about the status of the alleged missing White House e-mails," said Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States, said the National Archives and Records Administration had similarly gotten no response from the White House to its queries about what's going on. "I'm concerned about maintaining the fullest possible presidential records," he told the committee.

Republican leaders said they were also concerned about the prospect of missing nuggets of presidential history, but they accused the Democrats of failing to acknowledge the White House's ongoing efforts to retrieve the messages. Republican Ranking Member Tom Davis (R-Va.) said the White House has said it has since reduced the number of days' worth of missing e-mails from 473 to 202 after discovering that those messages had been filed "in the wrong digital drawer" as part of a switch from the Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange e-mail system in 2002.

White House Chief Information Officer Theresa Payton assured the committee that her office is working actively on a multi-step restoration process. Their early results have identified an unspecified number of the previously "missing" messages, though those results still have to be validated.

When pressed by Davis, Payton also said she felt "very comfortable" that they would be able to reconstruct any remaining lost documents from "disaster recovery backup tapes," although she said that process would be time-consuming and could cost at least $15 million.

Did advisers use Republican National Committee accounts?
A separate issue under scrutiny revolves around charges that Karl Rove and some 50 other presidential advisers were using Republican National Committee accounts to conduct official business and thus subvert federal record-keeping laws. The RNC has said it had virtually no records of e-mails sent on its servers by Rove and others before November 2003, which Democrats argue is troubling because those messages may contain important official information about the president's decision to go to war in Iraq.

Waxman said he heard from RNC officials as recently as Monday that the White House had made no effort to request backup tapes from the committee that may contain those files. He scolded White House officials for their inaction. Both Payton and her boss, White House Office of Administration director Alan Swendiman, said they wouldn't be responsible for making such requests but would look into who is.

Republicans accused the Democrats of pursuing the investigation simply to dig up dirt on Rove and waste hundreds of thousands of dollars of money that the RNC could be using to shore up its candidates' campaigns.

"Are we simply going on a fishing expedition at $40,000 to $50,000 a month?" Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked National Archives and White House officials at the hearing. "Do any of you know of a single document, because this committee doesn't, that should've been in the archives but in fact was done at the RNC?"

"I think the issue is always, were there official government public records on that system?" responded Gary Stern, general counsel to the National Archives.

The loss of documents in either case is potentially significant because federal laws, including the Presidential Records Act, requires the White House to preserve all documents related to the president and vice president's official business and turn them over to the National Archives. Personal records, including political campaign-related materials, are expected to be filed separately and not subject to the same restrictions. The matter has already sparked a lawsuit from an advocacy group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Clinton administration's archiving problems
The Bush administration isn't the first to encounter problems with missing e-mails. During the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration at one point relied on a flawed e-mail archiving system that failed, among other things, to preserve e-mails sent by people whose names began with the letter D. The situation resulted in congressional hearings and some $11 million spent on reconstructing the some 200,000 missing e-mails, Waxman said.

The problems for the Bush administration apparently started soon after the White House decided to shift its e-mail system from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange in 2002. It also replaced the automated records storage system devised by the Clinton administration with a system that one of its own experts described as "primitive," according to Waxman.

According to the committee, the archive system is an "ad hoc" process called "journaling," in which a White House staffer or contractor manually copies e-mails and saves them on various White House servers. Democrats cast more than a little suspicion on that practice. They cited testimony outside the hearing from a former White House technology worker who said, at least during some points in 2005, those files and directories were available to all 3,000 employees under the umbrella of the executive office of the president.

White House CIO Payton, who began her job in May 2006, said she was unaware of anything of the sort. She also said she had no knowledge of anyone intentionally deleting or tampering with files and later said the copying of messages is automatic, not manual.

"We want to make sure we get all the e-mails over to the (National Archives) at transition" to the next president, she told the committee.