Executive Branch

White House Admits Erasing Pre-2003 E-Mail Backups

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Last week, a federal magistrate gave White House officials a five-day deadline to answer a question at the center of two consolidated lawsuits: Had they, or had they not, retained backup copies of some 5 million missing official e-mails transmitted between 2003 and 2005?

The answer to that question, it was reported today, still isn’t clear. In a federal court filing in the D.C. Circuit yesterday, the Bush administration acknowledges that it routinely taped over White House e-mail backup tapes until 2003, writes the Washington Post. That means that e-mails considered part of official archives during the administration’s first two years may be lost forever, since they are apparently long gone from the administration’s servers.

However, backups made since 2003 have been preserved, says Theresa Payton of the Office of Administration in an affidavit. But White House officials, she continues, haven’t determined whether e-mail is missing from 2003 to 2005. An administration investigation into the issue, she reports to the court, is continuing.

As discussed in an earlier ABAJournal.com post, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola issued the order last week in a consolidated Washington, D.C., case filed by two advocacy organizations over alleged violations of several federal record-keeping statutes.

News of Payton’s disclosures elicited criticism from the plaintiff camp.

“They didn’t have what any archival person would consider to be an electronic record-keeping system,” says Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, one of two advocacy groups that filed suit. “These are not the steps of a White House committed to preserving records or meeting its obligations under the law.”

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