White House Correspondence: The Great Forgetting

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How hard is it to save your emails? The Bush administration seems to have underestimated the challenge. Tim Lee explains:

When the Bush administration took office, it decided to replace the Lotus Notes-based e-mail system used under the Clinton Administration with Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. The transition broke compatibility with the old archiving system, and the White House IT shop did not immediately have a new one to put in its place.

Instead, the White House has instituted a comically primitive system called "journaling," in which (to quote from a recent Congressional report) "a White House staffer or contractor would collect from a 'journal' e-mail folder in the Microsoft Exchange system copies of e-mails sent and received by White House employees." These would be manually named and saved as ".pst" files on White House servers.

Due to the lack of a reliable archiving scheme, thousands of e-mails appear to have been lost, perhaps irretrievably. A 2005 analysis performed by McDevitt (while he was still on the White House Staff) found over 700 days with e-mails apparently missing from the "journaling" archives, including 12 days in which all e-mails from the president's immediate office were missing, and 16 days when all e-mails from the Vice President's office were missing. The White House Office of Administration has estimated that between 2003 and 2005, at least five million e-mails have been lost. Some of those may be recoverable from backup tapes, but in the absence of adequate logging features, there is no way to be sure all of the e-mails have been recovered.

Federal law requires the preservation of White House emails concerning official business, but senior officials don't seem terribly concerned. Lots more here.

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  1. Cryptarchy is evil and invites pernicious behavior regardless of the underlying ideology.

    It is this reason more than any other by far that, absent Ron Paul as a viable candidate, I support Obama, who *still* is the only candidate to have a substantial portion of his platform dedicated to open government/good government/transparency initiatives, and has a track record of pursuing these types of reforms both in the Illinois leg. and in the US Senate.

    Honestly, how hard is it to make a government that can be *observed freely* by its citizens?

  2. And I’m sure the staffers would be “unavailable” to collect the emails from the journal folder at suspiciously ideal times.

  3. You have to understand, computers are a new fangled invention and hard to use. It is understandable that they can’t get them right. I’m still working to figure out the whole horseless carriage thingy I bought.

  4. How . . . unsurprising.

  5. I reached my total possible apathy level years ago with this administration.

  6. I was on the fence before this, but I’m really starting to think that the Bush administration might be less than competent.

  7. How hard is it to save your emails?

    Its really easy when there’s already a working, automated system in place. The hard thing is fucking it up.

  8. I, too, would break the law to keep from having to ever again use Lotus Notes.

  9. I SOOOOO want to see Bush and other key members of his administration put on trial.

  10. I, too, would break the law to keep from having to ever again use Lotus Notes.

    I agree completely. I like how the Feds are where software that got it’s ass kicked in the real world goes to fester and die. I bet the Feds still use WordPerfect, too.

  11. Either two things happened:

    1) This was done on purpose to cover something up, or…

    2) This was truly an accident, which makes me wonder: if they can’t set up an email server, how are they supposed to set up the newest, largest federal department (DHS) in history.

    I wouldn’t be surprised by either…

  12. I agree completely. I like how the Feds are where software that got it’s ass kicked in the real world goes to fester and die. I bet the Feds still use WordPerfect, too.

    Actually, Wordperfect kinda kicks ass on Word in terms of capabilities, and it’s doing fine. Lotus Notes on the other hand is vile demon created crap, and I don’t have a problem with someone moving on from that aforementioned piece of crap.

  13. I, too, would break the law to keep from having to ever again use Lotus Notes.

    Agreed. However, it’s easy enough to preserve all your Exchange emails.

    This is purposeful, plain and simple. The thing is, what do they have to fear? Nothing, unfortunately.

  14. Considering how much businesses have to spend just to comply with their fucking regulations about saving every speck of information on everything that’s ever happened, this pisses me off.

  15. What are the chances every new administration will change their email system and “lose” their emails due to this crazy “technology.”

    The same “technology” they use to archive your emails but they don’t seem to have any problem with that system.

    Their “technology” works when they want it to.

  16. FWIW, I work for the federal govt.

    A few weeks ago I logged onto a different network computer than my normal desktop (I was temp assigned duties at an office across the street)

    When I got back to my normal computer, my network pst (I think it’s called an .ost file) was totally messed up, causing me to lose almost a year’s worth of archived emails – which I didn’t think would be a problem, but has been a real pain in the neck because some old project just came back into the forefront of people’s attention.

    Now, of course, I am the dumbass for not properly backing up my .pst files. But at the same time, I could see how this stuff is messed up.

    The bigger problem I have is the stories that various white house officials were using rnc.org email servers, contra to the law, because they didn’t wnat to bother with the official program of record equipment that us ‘little people’ are stuck with.

  17. Due to the lack of a reliable archiving scheme, thousands of e-mails appear to have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

    Try using that one on the SEC and see what happens.

  18. They don’t want us to know that Rumsfeld was really Jean Bart. Didn’t they both disappear around the same time?

  19. For many people, E-mails still don’t hold the same significance as letters. I know people who automatically print e-mails they want to keep and delete the rest, and I know people who never delete any e-mails until their .pst file grows below the maximum size limit and then abandon their profile and create a new one. I can easily see why White House officials wouldn’t bee too concerned over e-mails.

    I can also understand the technical problems with keeping e-mails. I used to work for an investment company, where we used Eudora 3. During one inspection, the SEC requested all the e-mails to look through, so we gave them our e-mail files, and they had no clue how to open them. They requested “Outlook readable” files and when we failed to provide those (nobody had any clue how to convert them, and Outlook didn’t want to import them), they fined us. I’ve run into compatibility problems elsewhere as well, whether it’s something as simple as trying to open a RTF-formated e-mail in PINE or as complicated as trying to switch from a free, Debian-based mail server to Exchange server, in order to satisfy Sarbox.

    I’d be the first one to accuse the current administration of malice and stupidity combined, but in this particular case I can sympathize with the White House.

  20. So, this being “the law” and all, I’m assuming there will be some sort of investigation and the guilty parties punished? Or are laws just for the little people?

    And folks wonder how someone could be cynical about our government.

  21. Can’t we just seize all of their computer and have them scanned for the old e-mails? Seems to work for kiddy porn…

  22. Want to bet President Hillary finds them sitting in plain sight on a table in the White House living room?

  23. I dunno Jozef, I work for a good sized urban hospital with a bunch of associated clinics, and they managed to transition from an older e-mail system to an Outlook Exchange environment with very little drama and without losing year’s worth of e-mail. And they have, like, backups and everything.

    If the folks at the White House can’t pull this off after, what, 8 years(?) they shouldn’t be in charge of anything.

  24. I SOOOOO want to see Bush and other key members of his administration put on trial.

    Agreed. It’s a shame there isn’t an opposing party with the balls to do anything like that.

  25. Can’t we just seize all of their computer and have them scanned for the old e-mails? Seems to work for kiddy porn…

    You may be on to something here…

    Perhaps the long arm of the law can be perverted to the advantage of freedom; all one must do is flood the FBI with “credible testimony” that Cheney et. al.’s computers contain archives of child porn. Be sure to identify them only by IP address, and let the “save the children” attack dogs do the rest.

    Fun ensues.

  26. I was on the fence before this, but I’m really starting to think that the Bush administration might be less than competent.

    In this particular matter they have shown a great deal of competence.

  27. So, this being “the law” and all, I’m assuming there will be some sort of investigation and the guilty parties punished?
    Or are laws just for the little people?

    They have been investigating it, and these revelations are coming from those investigations.
    But who is gonna “punish” any guilty parties in the Executive branch?

    The DOJ? The AG who servers at the leisure of the President ?

    Laws are only as worthwhile as the ability to enforce them. Barring impeachment proceedings who exactly is going to enforce these laws against the Executive branch?

    Maybe a Congressman can write a sternly worded letter.

  28. I recall stories about laughably outdated technology in the White House going back several administrations. I have little doubt that this snafu actually occurred.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that the administration minded terribly if a bunch of e-mails managed to conveniently disappear. Remember, though, that along with any damning e-mails are messages that the WH would undoubtedly want to brandish in public to show that it was “on the case” about one thing or another.

    I vote incompetence as the real culprit. Which isn’t a terribly comforting thought in a nuclear-armed government…

  29. Good God. I have every email entering or leaving my account archived for the last five years. They all get backed up when our network backs up, too (I believe every night). And this all happens without me having to do a damn thing other than drop an email into the archive folder when I’m done with it (actually easier than “deleting” it).

    And yeah, its Outlook.

  30. Good God. I have every email entering or leaving my account archived for the last five years. They all get backed up when our network backs up, too (I believe every night). And this all happens without me having to do a damn thing other than drop an email into the archive folder when I’m done with it (actually easier than “deleting” it).

    The big problem of archiving multi-millions of e-mails is not saving them, but retrieving them. I can see a format change screwing things up big time–especially in an IT-challenged climate like the White House. Essentially, the identifying information for each message has to be stored into a database, and it’s not difficult to believe that an archive partly in Notes and partly in Outlook would be a freakin’ mess.

    I don’t know if it’s still ongoing, but there is a big federal employment discrimination case in New York that delved deeply into this question in the context of pretrial discovery. The employer (UBS Warburg, I believe) was complaining about the enormous cost and time involved in retrieving the relative handful of relevant e-mail messages and was trying to stick the former employee with the cost of having experts retrieve them.

    I’m not saying that the White House is blameless, but I doubt we’re dealing with a Nixon Tapes issue here.

  31. Evil or Stupid? Stupid or Evil? It’s amazing how you can never quite tell.

  32. I SOOOOO want to see Bush and other key members of his administration put on trial.

    And you wonder why their emails get lost?

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