White House to Blame for Failures in Missing E-mail Controversy, Experts say

For President Bush, who expresses disdain for e-mail, the White House system of electronic record-keeping is a good match.

Even if Bush used e-mail, it might get lost in the problem-plagued White House computer system.

"I don't want you reading my personal stuff," the president explained to newspaper editors three years ago on why he doesn't send electronic messages.

On Capitol Hill and in federal court, a congressional committee and two private groups are pushing for information on how the White House has handled its e-mail for the past six years and whether officials there complied with records-retention laws.

The picture emerging from testimony and court filings is one of disregard for fundamental principles that well-run private companies adhere to routinely. By one estimate, over 1,000 days of e-mail are missing from various White House offices.

"I would call this negligence," said Mark Epstein, director of technical services for Cataphora Inc., a California company that specializes in retrieval and analysis of electronic information.

The White House's first mistake, Epstein and other technical experts say, was moving to a new e-mail setup without first setting up an archiving system that would allow speedy, reliable searches and recovery of electronic messages.

"This is the first time I've personally run across this kind of process for archiving; the White House relied on human beings to do specific manual processes on a regular basis and I would not recommend it," said William Tolson, who has consulted on e-mail problems for hundreds of companies and state and local governments.

Tolson is co-author of the book "E-Mail Archiving For Dummies" and director of legal solutions marketing at Mimosa Systems Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.

The White House e-mail troubles began in 2002 with a decision to upgrade electronic message capabilities and move from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange.

Prior to launching Microsoft Exchange for e-mail, there should have been full-scale testing of an archiving system, e-mail experts said. In addition, both the existing archiving system and a new one should have run at the same time until the new system was fully proven.

Two federal laws, one carrying criminal penalties, require preservation of White House e-mail.

At the end of Bush's presidency, e-mail and other White House records will be turned over to the National Archives.

The White House began work on archiving issues in 2002, but "essentially, development ... was delayed after the 2004 election," according to a National Archives document produced at a hearing Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

White House official Theresa Payton said she canceled the planned archive in late 2006 because the new system wasn't up to the task. The White House is working on a new system, she added.

"It is clear from Theresa Payton's testimony that this series of projects failed to follow typical practices used for new deployments in sensitive environments," said Epstein. "These projects have taken far longer than they should have."

Computer experts point out that the switch to a new system that the White House botched is successfully accomplished every year for e-mail systems that serve much larger numbers of users than the 2,000 at the White House.

Lawyers say the shortcomings in the White House's system would have prompted major legal problems had the White House been operating in the private sector.

"The penalties for regulated companies that have failed to implement effective e-mail archive solutions have been quite severe, penalties often imposed by branches of the federal government," said James K. Wagner Jr., a lawyer and co-founder of DiscoverReady LLC, a firm that assists companies in gathering and reviewing electronic documents.

Wagner said e-mail archiving "is a real challenge" and every major company in the U.S. has been forced to address these issues over the last five to 10 years.

In written statements placed on the public record at Tuesday's congressional hearing, former White House technical staffer Steven McDevitt said "there was a great deal of concern about proceeding" from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange "without having an adequate e-mail records management solution in place."

Nonetheless, the White House started making the switch early in the administration, with disastrous results.

In his written statements to the committee, McDevitt said there was no complete inventory of e-mail files and there was no consistently applied naming convention for the e-mail files.

It's like "retrieving critical documents from a large warehouse full of boxes without a proper labeling and filing system; magnify this 10 or 100-fold" for the White House, said Brad Harris of Fios Inc. of Portland, Ore. Fios assists corporations that are being compelled to produce electronic data in regulatory investigations and court cases.

The White House system handles 1 million to 1.5 million e-mails a month, according to a 2002 White House report.

A White House-prepared chart created in 2005 indicates that no e-mail was archived for various White House components in at least 473 instances from January 2003 through August 2005.

If other assumptions were taken into account, that number soared to over 1,000 instances of missing e-mail, McDevitt wrote.

"I do not recall the exact number of estimated missing e-mail, but I believe it was greater than 1 million," McDevitt wrote.

White House officials say they think they've located a substantial amount of the missing e-mail. But the White House has been trying to track it all down for months and still doesn't have final results.