WASHINGTON – Older White House computer hard drives have been destroyed, the White House disclosed to a federal court Friday in a controversy over millions of possibly missing e-mails from 2003 to 2005.
The White House revealed new information about how it handles its computers in an effort to persuade a federal magistrate it would be fruitless to undertake an e-mail recovery plan that the court proposed.
"When workstations are at the end of their lifecycle and retired ... the hard drives are generally sent offsite to another government entity for physical destruction," the White House said in a sworn declaration filed with U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola.
It has been the goal of a White House Office of Administration "refresh program" to replace one-third of its workstations every year in the Executive Office of the President, according to the declaration.
Some, but not necessarily all, of the data on old hard drives is moved to new computer hard drives, the declaration added.
In proposing an e-mail recovery plan Tuesday, Facciola expressed concern that a large volume of electronic messages may be missing from White House computer servers, as two private groups that are suing the White House allege.
Facciola proposed the drastic approach of going to individual workstations of White House computer users after the White House disclosed in January that it recycled its computer backup tapes before October 2003. Recycling — taping over existing data — raises the possibility that any missing e-mails may not be recoverable.
At a House committee hearing last month, a computer expert who previously worked at the White House called the e-mail system "primitive" and said it was set up in a way that created a high risk that data would be lost from White House servers where it was being archived.
Under pressure to provide details about its computer system, the White House told the congressional committee that it never completed work that began in 2003 on a planned records management and e-mail archiving system. The White House canceled the project in late 2006 and says it is still working on a new version.
In the absence of a permanent archiving system, the White House has been archiving e-mails on White House servers since early in the administration.
The White House says it does not know if any e-mails are missing, but is looking into the matter.
It would be costly and time-consuming for the White House to institute an e-mail retrieval program that entails pulling data off each individual workstation, the court papers filed Friday state.