Court orders White House to preserve Bush-era e-mails

A U.S. judge has ordered employees of President George Bush in the White House to search for and preserve e-mail messages on their workstations and other storage devices.

White House officials have acknowledged about 5 million missing e-mail messages from between March 2003 and October 2005, covered a period including the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Two private groups, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive, both filed lawsuits in September 2007, seeking to have courts order the White House to preserve e-mail messages from that period.

The two groups have argued that the White House was required by laws including the Federal Records Act to preserve those e-mail messages as part of the official record that will be archived.

After months of legal wrangling, Judge Henry Kennedy of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday ordered White House staff to search their workstations and other storage devices for e-mail messages from that period.

White House employees must surrender “any media in their possession — irrespective of the intent with which it was create — that may contain e-mails sent or received” between March 2003 and October 2005, Kennedy wrote in his two-page order.

CREW and the National Security Archive, an independent research institute and library at George Washington University, had sought an emergency order requiring the White House to preserve those e-mail records before Bush leaves office on Tuesday.

A White House representative wasn’t immediately available for comment on Kennedy’s order.

The White House has recovered millions of e-mail messages once thought lost, but the order was necessary to recover additional e-mail, National Security Archive officials said. Bush administration officials “did nothing to stop people working in the White House from disposing of memory sticks, CDs, DVDs and zip drives that may have been the sole copies of missing e-mails on them,” Sheila Shadmand, counsel for the archive, said in a post on the archive’s site. “We believe our ability to get a complete restoration of the White House record from 2003 to 2005 and evidence of what went wrong has been compromised.”

The archive filed its emergency motion for an extended preservation order last March.

A magistrate judge issued two reports, on April 24 and July 29, recommending that Kennedy issue an order requiring search, surrender and preservation of the computer workstations and external media devices, such as CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, and external hard drives. Wednesday’s report adopted those recommendations.

“If this kind of irresponsible conduct can take place despite the Executive Office of the President’s obligations under the Federal Records Act and this lawsuit, then perhaps the country needs more oversight of record-keeping in the White House,” archive director Tom Blanton said in Web posting.

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