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Watchdog chucks life raft to White House backup tapes

5 million missing messages. And counting...

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A government watchdog group that alleges the Bush Administration has illegally failed to maintain more than 5 million emails has filed a temporary restraining order that would require administrators to preserve all remaining backup tapes.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed the motion on Thursday, two weeks after suing the Executive Office of the President and related groups over their admission that millions of emails were missing from White House servers. Federal law requires that electronic messages and other communications be preserved. A White House spokeswoman has said the email probably exists on backup tapes.

Attorneys for CREW said in court papers that an order barring the recycling or destruction of backup tapes is necessary because officials from the Office of Administration (OA) refuse to give assurances they will preserve all tapes while the lawsuit proceeds. Instead, the officials have only promised to maintain tapes in their possession as of September 25, the day the complaint was filed.

"Far from offering adequate assurances that all back-up copies are being appropriately preserved, the OA's response raises a serious question as to whether all of the back-up copies containing any of the missing emails still exist or whether, instead, they have been destroyed along with the original emails stored on the White House servers or transferred out of the OA's control," CREW attorneys argued. "Absent an injunction, CREW and the public will suffer irreparable harm, specifically the risk that the last remaining copies of important historical documents will not be preserved."

The OA discovered the missing email when it was responding to a government subpoena for documents. Officials estimate there were at least 5 million missing messages sent from March 2003 to October 2005, although CREW says the number has likely grown "exponentially."

White House critics are also upset about a finding from Congressional investigators that at least 88 senior Administration officials used email addresses provided by the Republican National Committee to send communications so they'd never be subject to record retention requirements. ®

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