Expert details White House e-mail risks
By PETE YOST,
Associated Press Writer
A computer expert who worked at the White House provided the first inside look at its e-mail system Tuesday, calling it a "primitive" setup that created a high risk that data would be lost.
Steven McDevitt's written statements, placed on the public record at a congressional hearing, asserted that a study by White House technical staff in October 2005 turned up an estimated 1,000 days on which e-mail was missing.
Two federal laws require electronic messages to be preserved.
Before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the White House defended the Bush administration's handling of its electronic messages.
"We are very energized about getting to the bottom of this," testified Theresa Payton, chief information officer at the White House Office of Administration.
"This is a form of sandbagging," replied Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who pointed out that by the time the White House fixes its e-mail problems, "you'll be out of office."
In his written statements, McDevitt said he participated in meetings with White House counsel Harriet Miers and members of her staff. The meetings, in December 2005 and early 2006, occurred around the time McDevitt and other technical staffers were trying to determine how much e-mail was missing from the White House.
In a report presented at the hearing, Waxman's Democratic staff said difficulties arose in recovering e-mails for Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the CIA leak probe. Fitzgerald publicly disclosed the fact that the White House had an e-mail problem in early 2006.
There were no archived e-mails from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney from Sept. 30, 2003, to Oct. 6, 2003, just as the Justice Department was launching its investigation into whether anyone at the White House leaked Valerie Plame's CIA identity, according to documents provided to the House panel. The only e-mails that could be recovered for prosecutors were from the personal e-mail accounts of officials in Cheney's office, according to the report by Waxman's staff.
Regarding Fitzgerald's office, McDevitt stated that he worked with "White House counsel on efforts to provide an explanation to the special prosecutor. This included providing a briefing to the special prosecutor's staff on this subject." McDevitt provided no details to the committee about the briefing.
On Tuesday night, Fitzgerald's office in Chicago, where he is the U.S. attorney, declined to comment.
At the hearing, Republicans questioned the accuracy of the estimates the White House technical staffers came up with in 2005.
"A substantial portion of the so-called 'missing' e-mails appear not to be missing at all, just filed in the wrong digital drawer," said Rep. Tom Davis, the committee's ranking Republican. "The restoration and recovery process continues."
McDevitt's statements detailed shortcomings that he said have plagued the White House e-mail system for six years. He declared that:
_The White House had no complete inventory of e-mail files.
_Until mid-2005 the e-mail system had serious security flaws, in which "everyone" on the White House computer network had access to e-mail. McDevitt wrote that the "potential impact" of the security flaw was that there was no way to verify that retained data had not been modified.
_There was no automatic system to ensure that e-mails were archived and preserved.
Instead of a permanent system, the White House used what Carlos Solari, Payton's predecessor, called a temporary solution.
"I refer to it as a 'message collection system' even though we all understand that it hardly qualifies as a 'system' by the usual ... definition," Solari told the House committee staff.
McDevitt told the committee that a new e-mail archiving system that would have addressed the problems was "ready to go live" on Aug. 21, 2006.
Payton told Waxman's committee she canceled the new system in late 2006 because it would have required modifications and additional spending. An alternative system is under way, she said.
Solari, Payton's predecessor, told the House committee that he was puzzled that the new system had been rejected and that he had "absolutely" believed that the system Payton rejected would be implemented.
When President Bush leaves office, presidential records and federal records at the White House will be turned over to the National Archives.
Waxman produced a memo pointing to a lack of cooperation between the White House and the National Archives.
"We still know virtually nothing about the status of the alleged missing White House e-mails," the National Archives' general counsel, Gary Stern, wrote to his boss last September.
Copyright © 2008 The Associated Press.