Did White House Lie About Solution Provider's Role in Loss of 5 Million E-mails?

When Congress asked about 5 million executive branch e-mails that went missing, a White House lawyer pointed the finger at an outside IT contractor.

The only problem? No such IT contractor exists, according to sources close to the investigation of a possible violation of the Federal Records and Presidential Records acts.

White House Office of Administration (OA) Deputy General Counsel Keith Roberts told the House Oversight Committee on May 29 that "an unidentified company working for the Information Assurance (IA) Directorate of the Office of the Chief Information Officer was responsible for daily audits of the e-mail system and the email archiving process," according to committee chair Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. That briefing came about after it was confirmed by the White House in April that millions of e-mails had vanished from Executive Office of the President (EOP) archives from 2003-2005.

"Mr. Roberts was not able to explain why the daily audits conducted by this contractor failed to detect the problems in the archive system when they first began," wrote Waxman in an Aug. 30 letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding. In that letter, Waxman requested that the White House provide the committee by Sept. 10 with an internal Executive Office of the President report on the e-mail system it said it prepared following the discovery of the missing e-mails, as well as the identity of the contractor responsible for daily audits and archiving. That deadline has come and gone with no response from the Bush administration on Waxman's request.

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The offices of the president and vice president are required to preserve all official communications, including e-mail, by the Presidential Records Act, a Watergate-era law which establishes that such communications are the property of the American people and cannot be destroyed. The Federal Records Act covers the archiving of communications by other parts of the executive branch.

Contrary to Roberts' statement to the Oversight Committee, several sources, including an IT company currently doing contractual work for the Executive Office of the President, have told ChannelWeb that no outside company had a managed services contract to audit the Executive Office of the President's e-mail archiving system daily during the period when the e-mails went missing.

"There are many contractors working for the [Information Assurance] Directorate and no single one provided audit and archive functions," said a spokesperson for Unisys, an IT security and hardware firm which has provided the Executive Office of the President "with a variety of IT services that support the Office of Administration."

"We don't believe that Unisys is the Information Assurance Directorate contractor to which Deputy Attorney General Keith Roberts referred when he briefed Rep. Waxman's committee in May," said Lisa Meyer, director of public relations for the Blue Bell, Penn.-based company.

Meyer said Unisys worked on a contractual basis for the Executive Office of the President on specific IT projects rather than conducting ongoing management of systems or infrastructure.

"This is not a managed services contract. Rather, we operate at the direction of the government, performing tasks across the organization, not just for IA," she said.

Several calls to the White House for comment were not returned.

NEXT: Another Possible Scapegoat Emerges

System Management Engineering, another Executive Office of the President contractor, does system design and consultancy work for the White House but has never had system management responsibilities, according to CEO Herbert Quinn. The Reston, Va.-based solution provider currently has a three-year IT services contract with the Executive Office of the President that will end in 2008, Quinn said.

"We don't work at the micro level. Our assignment there is as an enterprise architect. We design systems, we don't manage systems," he said.

Attorneys for two non-profit organizations that have filed lawsuits against the Executive Office of the President, the White House Office of Administration and other relevant agencies and officials over the alleged violations confirm the Unisys spokesperson's claim.

"My understanding is that the audits started after this thing exploded," said Meredith Fuchs, an attorney for the National Security Archive, a non-profit public research institute and library based at George Washington University. The archive, which collects and publishes declassified and unclassified government documents for the public domain, filed suit Sept. 5 in Washington, D.C., against the Executive Office of the President, the White House Office of Administration, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the head of the Office of Adminstration, and the Archivist of the United States.

Anne Weismann, chief counsel for private watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said much the same.

"On the contractor issue, my info is that through 2005, when they discovered the problem, there was no daily archiving or monitoring. It may be that once they discovered the problem, there may have been a contractor brought on," Weismann said.

The National Security Archive and CREW lawsuits paint a picture of a White House that gave low priority to compliance with its archival duties under the law. The research institute alleges that the Executive Office of the President abandoned the automated record management system (ARMS) built by the previous administration to securely archive e-mails in 2002, never implementing another system for that purpose. The time period for the abandonment of the legacy archival system coincides with the Executive Office of the President's switch from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, referred to by White House Press Secretary Dana Perino in an April 13 press briefing.

"In 2002, they abandoned Lotus Notes, went to Microsoft Outlook, abandoned ARMS, but never put in a new electronic records management system. So I'm told they just dumped e-mail on servers. This meant that anybody with access to the servers could potentially dump data and delete documents," said Weismann.

"Each agency of the EOP's records are commingled. It's all just a dump. How much is missing? I think 5 million is the low end of what's missing."

Interestingly, NARA's total agency IT investments went from $36 million in 2001 to $62 million in 2002, according to the Clinger Cohen Act Report on Federal Information Technology Investments. Drilling deeper, NARA's budget for IT development, enhancement and modernization (DME) shot up from $3 million to $17 million in that year-on-year period. Budget numbers for later years could not be confirmed.

Yet in the year following the near-doubling of its IT budget, NARA suddenly seemed incapable of preventing massive data loss in the form of millions of e-mails.

Meanwhile, the Oversight Committee is also investigating the use of Republican National Committee e-mail services by White House staff members, following allegations that RNC e-mail was used for official communications to avoid archiving under the Presidential Records and Federal Records acts. The Bush administration has countered that RNC e-mail was used to comply with the Hatch Act's provisions against campaigning with public resources by federal civil servants.

"The truth is that every presidency that has had e-mail, has had problems with keeping e-mail records. But for this administration, it's particularly bad. Here we are, the most powerful nation in the world, and the idea that we wouldn't be preserving our history is just astounding," said Fuchs.

NEXT: Timeline of Events in White House E-mail Scandal

Timeline of Events in White House E-mail Scandal

1994: Executive Office of the President (EOP) implements Automated Records Management System (ARMS) integration with e-mail clients for secure archiving of White House e-mails. ARMS automatically segregates, categorizes and archives e-mails according to whether they fall under Presidential Records Act or Federal Records Act.

1996-1998: White House IT staffer claims in U.S. District Court affidavits that e-mails coming into one White House server were not archived over a 27-month period.

1997: White House Staff manual establishes policy for staff to only use ARMS-supported e-mail clients (Lotus Notes and Oasis All-In-1) for all official communications.

2002-2003: Executive Office of the President switches from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook e-mail client. ARMS integration with Lotus Notes discontinued, not replaced with similar secure archival system for Microsoft Outlook. Presidential records and federal records no longer segregated and archived in separate storage servers.

March 2003-October 2005: Some 5 million EOP e-mails deleted from servers, representing hundreds of days of missing created or received White House e-mails, according to Office of Administration.

Oct. 2005: In response to government subpoenas, OA discovers missing e-mails, begins investigating how this happened.

Feb. 2006: CIA leak case prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald writes that numerous White House emails from 2003 are missing from White House computer archives.

April 2007: White House Press Secretary Dana Perino "wouldn't rule out" that 5 million e-mails lost in EOP system. Perino later says they "should be" on backup tapes. To date, White House has not shown evidence of the missing e-mails being restored via backup tapes.

May 2007: OA counsel Keith Roberts tells House Oversight Committee an outside IT contractor was responsible for "daily audits" of e-mail archive system.

Aug. 2007: Oversight Committee chair Henry Waxman asks White House to name unnamed IT contractor by Sept. 10. As of Oct. 3, committee has not received an answer.

--With additional reporting by Joseph F. Kovar.