E-mail sent and received by White House personnel during the first three years of the Bush administration was routinely recorded on tapes...
WASHINGTON — E-mail sent and received by White House personnel during the first three years of the Bush administration was routinely recorded on tapes that were “recycled,” the White House’s chief information officer said in a court filing this week.
During the period in question, the Bush presidency faced some of its biggest controversies, including the Iraq war, the leak of former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson’s name and the CIA’s destruction of interrogation videotapes.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said he has no reason to believe any e-mail was deliberately destroyed.
From 2001 to October 2003, the White House’s practice was to use the same backup tape each day to copy new and old e-mail, he said, making it possible some of that e-mail could still be recovered even from a tape that was overwritten repeatedly.
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“We are continuing to analyze our systems,” Fratto said Wednesday night.
The court filing said tapes were “recycled” before October 2003, and at that point, the White House “began preserving and storing all backup tapes.”
Two federal statutes require presidential communications, including e-mail involving senior White House aides, to be preserved for the nation’s historical record, and some historians responded to the court disclosure Wednesday by urging that the White House actions be investigated thoroughly.
“There certainly could have been hugely important materials there … and of course they’re not owned by President Bush or anybody in the administration, they’re owned by the public,” said presidential historian and author Robert Dallek.
“Given how secretive this administration has been, it of course fans the flames and suspicions about what has been destroyed here. I hope we’ll get an investigation.”
The White House’s electronic record-keeping system has been under scrutiny for months by congressional Democrats and is the subject of several lawsuits, one of which prompted the latest disclosures. The administration has acknowledged problems with the White House archiving system, but until late Tuesday had not disclosed its practice of recycling backup tapes before 2003.
Although the White House said in the filing that its practice of recording over the tapes ceased after October 2003, it added that even some e-mail transmitted through the end of 2005 might not have been preserved fully. “At this stage, this office does not know” whether additional e-mail is missing, said the affidavit filed minutes before a court-ordered deadline of midnight Tuesday by Theresa Payton, chief information officer in the White House Office of Administration.
The White House disclosure was filed with the court in response to a lawsuit filed by two advocacy groups, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive, which alleged that millions of e-mails sent between 2003 and 2005 are missing from White House servers.
Since the controversy arose, the White House has acknowledged some of its e-mail may be missing but it is unsure how many because officials are investigating possible “anomalies” in the records.
House investigators have learned hundreds of thousands of e-mail messages from former presidential adviser Karl Rove and other White House aides are missing because they were sent using external accounts set up by the Republican National Committee.