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Dubya archives White House email by hand

When a system is not a system

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How does the George W. Bush administration archive its email? It asks someone to manually copy the contents of an Exchange folder.

In a Congressional Report (PDF) turned up by Ars Technica, White House Chief Information Officer Teresa Payton admits that W and crew haven't used automated backup since 2002, when they tossed out Bill Clinton's Lotus Notes-based email system in favor of Microsoft Exchange.

When Notes got the boot, the White House moved to an ad hoc archiving process it calls "journaling." According to the report, "a White House staffer or contractor would collect from a 'journal' e-mail folder in the Microsoft Exchange system copies of e-mails sent and received by White House employees. After retrieving copies of these e-mails, the White House staffer or contractor would then manually name and save them as '.pst' files on various White House servers."

In an email referenced by the report, Former White CIO Carlos Solari uses these words to describe the journaling, um, concept: "I refer to it as a 'message collection system' even though we all understand that it hardly qualifies as a 'system' by the usual IT definition."

Steven McDevitt, another former senior staffer in the CIO's office, goes a few steps further. "The process by which email was being collected and retained was primitive and the risk that data would be lost was high," he told Congress. "There is no way to guarantee that all records are retained in their complete and unmodified state."

In the fall, the White House admitted that several million emails were missing from its servers, and two separate public interest groups have sued the W administration in an effort to bring them back from the dead. The 1978 Presidential Records Act insists that the Prez preserve his official records, and in 1993, a US Appeals Court decided that official records include the electronic stuff.

Last week, in response to a suit from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), federal magistrate John Facciola insisted that the White House clear up the confusion over the email backup tapes it created between March 2003 and October 2005.

In theory, such tapes would hold the many millions of missing messages. But it's difficult to tell if they're still intact. Though CIO Theresa Payton has said the White House often reused backup tapes before October 2003, another arm of W's Executive Office says she's wrong.

Judge Facciola also beefed up a court order that requires the White House to preserve the backup tapes in question, calling for Dubya to safeguard flash drives and other portable media as well. ®

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