WASHINGTON – When Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald wanted to find out what was going on inside Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the prosecutor in the CIA leak probe made a logical move. He dropped a grand jury subpoena on the White House for all the relevant e-mail.
One problem: Even though White House computer technicians hunted high and low, an entire week's worth of e-mail from Cheney's office was missing. The week was Sept. 30, 2003, to Oct. 6, 2003, the opening days of the Justice Department's probe into whether anyone at the White House leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
That episode was part of the picture that unfolded Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where Democrats on a House committee released new information about one of the Bush White House's long-running issues, its problem-plagued e-mail system.
For the first time, a former White House computer technician went public with the details. Steven McDevitt revealed in written statements submitted to Congress how a plan was developed to try to recover the missing e-mail for Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, 250 pages of electronic messages were retrieved from the personal e-mail accounts of officials in Cheney's office, but whether that amounted to all the relevant e-mail is a question that may never be answered.
McDevitt made clear that it was a sensitive issue inside the White House.
"I worked with ... White House Counsel on efforts to provide an explanation to the special prosecutor," McDevitt wrote. "This included providing a briefing to the special prosecutor's staff on this subject."
McDevitt provided no details of the meetings with White House Counsel Harriet Miers and others in the counsel's office in late 2005 and early 2006. The White House refused to comment on those meetings.
The White House put the best face on a bad hearing Tuesday of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, defending the administration's handling of its electronic messages.
McDevitt said that one estimate from a 2005 analysis was that more than 1,000 days of e-mail were missing from January 2003 to Aug. 10, 2005. McDevitt said "the process by which e-mail was being collected and retained was primitive and the risk that data would be lost was high." The "low end" estimate was about 470 days, he added.
The White House says a substantial amount of what had been believed to be missing e-mail had been located.
"We are very energized about getting to the bottom of this" issue, Theresa Payton, chief information officer at the White House Office of Administration, testified to the committee.
"This is a form of sandbagging," replied Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who pointed out that by the time the White House fixes its e-mail problems, "you'll be out of office."
McDevitt's statements detailed shortcomings that he said have plagued the White House e-mail system for six years. He said:
—The White House had no complete inventory of e-mail files.
—There was no automatic system to ensure that e-mail was archived and preserved.
—Until mid-2005 the e-mail system had serious security flaws, in which "everyone" on the White House computer network had access to e-mail. McDevitt wrote that the "potential impact" of the security flaw was that there was no way to verify that retained data had not been modified.
—A new e-mail archiving system that would have addressed the problems was "ready to go live" on Aug. 21, 2006.
Payton told Waxman's committee she canceled the new system in late 2006 because it would have required modifications and additional spending. An alternative system is under way, she said.
Payton's predecessor, Carlos Solari, told the House committee that he was puzzled that the new system had been rejected and that he had "absolutely" believed that the system Payton rejected would be implemented.
When President Bush leaves office, presidential records and federal records at the White House will be turned over to the National Archives. Waxman produced a memo pointing to a lack of cooperation between the White House and the Archives.
"We still know virtually nothing about the status of the alleged missing White House e-mails," the Archives' general counsel, Gary Stern, wrote to his boss last September.