December 14th, 2009
09:05 PM ET

Some Bush-era emails restored, many still lost to history

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David Gewirtz | BIO
AC360° Contributor
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing

Some stories refuse to go away. One such story is the case of the missing White House emails. Over the course of two years beginning in 2007, I documented this story in my book, "Where Have All The Emails Gone?" and followed it up with articles written both here on AC360° and elsewhere.

It was announced today that some of those missing emails have been recovered. At the core of the story were millions of email messages that the Bush Administration was unable to deliver to the National Archives in compliance with the Presidential Records Act. They weren't able to deliver the messages because of what seemed most likely to be almost incomprehensibly poor IT (information technology) management practices within the Executive Office of the President.

Two organizations, the National Security Archives of George Washington University and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington brought suit, demanding the White House turn over the missing records.

Commenting on the state of the current White House email system today, Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archives stated: "We have been briefed on the system in use since the beginning of the Obama Administration and we believe that the system now in use fixes the significant problems with the prior system, including by capturing everything, properly categorizing the emails, and preventing unauthorized deletion."

According to the two plaintiff organizations, the Obama White House found and properly archived 22 million messages that the Bush White House was unable to find since 2005.

In addition, the White House has agreed to a set of general principles for email management, searching, archiving, and future record keeping.

Only part of the problem

While certainly a victory, the resolution of the White House email lawsuit leaves perhaps the larger part of the White House email problem completely unresolved.

In fact, it was never even explored as part of the lawsuit.

In 1939, a law was passed called The Hatch Act. This law still exists today and it now governs government communications, including email. In particular, it says that certain government employees can't conduct political activities using government resources.

From the perspective of email, this means that White House staffers sent most of their politically-related email outside the White House email system. In the book, I estimated the Bush administration sent some 80 million email messages outside of the White House email system, none of which are accounted for and none of which were explored by the lawsuit.

According to both Congressional testimony by Bush-era staffers as well as White House press briefings given by the Bush press office, it became clear that Karl Rove and other Bush-era senior staffers used private messaging systems for the bulk of their email.

None of these messages have been recovered, either.

It's exciting to see that the actual EOP systems are improving. But until the Hatch Act is reconsidered in light of modern technology, administrations will still be forced to use outside, often unsecured messaging systems for much of their email activity, and most of those messages will never be recorded in compliance with the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act.

Follow David on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.

Filed under: David Gewirtz • Technology
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