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The Presidential Records Act dictates that the White House archive all records including e-mails. Problem is the Executive Office of the President seemingly hasn't had a reliable system for preserving emails, despite the best efforts of three CIOs, numerous contractors and around $70 million expenditures. In the interim, an estimated 5 million White House emails have been lost, many of them reportedly dealing with sensitive political issues. Is this the result of a widespread attempt by the Bush administration to leave no electronic fingerprint behind, the fallout stemming from a series of IT missteps, political infighting and technical ineptitude, or perhaps some combination of the two?
By Laton McCartney
Remember the Watergate tapes -- recorded conversations among U.S President Richard Nixon and various White House staff members? One of those recordings was the so-called "smoking gun" tape in which the President requested that his staff pressure the CIA and FBI to justify the Watergate break-in as a national security matter. When that tape was finally made public in July 1974, Nixon lost what little support he had left and resigned a month later.
Four years later Congress passed The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 which governs the official records of the White House. The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public, and established a new statutory structure under which Presidents must manage their records. The PRA now mandates that the White House preserve e-mails and all other records documenting the "activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies" of the President.
In addition, what's called the Federal Records Act (FDA) dictates that federal records may not be destroyed -- except under the authority of a records disposition schedule approved by the Archivist of the United States. Created in 1950, the FDA requires that each federal agency head and his or her designees are responsible for ensuring that their agency creates and maintains records. In 1993 the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law applied to the White House and that electronic copies of emails needed to be stored and not just paper print outs.
It's important to note, however, that once a presidency has concluded, all White House documents including emails are turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for 12 years. During that period access is at best limited and subject to review by the former President. In other words, when George W. Bush steps down in 2009, his administration's records won't be fully accessible until 2021.
With all that in mind, many have a hard time comprehending why the White House -- effectively the headquarters of the most technically advanced nation in the world -- has seemingly been unable to implement, maintain and effectively manage an email records keeping system.
An estimated 5 million White House emails, many of which are thought to deal with the outset of the Iraq war, the controversial firing of eight federal attorneys and the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, appear to have gone AWOL - setting off a firestorm of lawsuits and congressional investigations.
"Good technology for automatically and seamlessly archiving email has existed since 2000," says Bill Tolson, director of legal and regulatory solutions marketing at Mimosa Systems, which provides information management and retrieval solutions, and co-author of "Email Archiving for Dummies." With this readily available and easily implemented technology, emails can be archived in real time, indexed and made searchable as easy as one, two, three. "There never has been a technical reason [for the White House] not to have this capability in place. Perhaps it was a matter of budgetary constraints or political foot dragging, but technology is not an obstacle."
Whatever the case, the story of White House e-mails - which, in fact, goes back to the Clinton White House -- touches on issues such as data archiving, e-discovery and network security that are vital to chief information officers.
This is a classic tale of what can go wrong -- even at the highest levels of government -- when a critical electronic communications archival and retrieval system is broken.