An Elephant Never Forgets?

Over at Ars Technica, I’ve got an in-depth write-up of the White House’s problems with email archiving. Federal law has required executive branch officers’ official emails to be preserved for legal and historical purposes. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has had some difficulties with this:

In 1994, the Clinton administration reacted to the previous year’s court decision by rolling out an automated e-mail-archiving system to work with the Lotus-Notes-based e-mail software that was in use at the time. The system automatically categorized e-mails based on the requirements of the FRA and PRA, and it included safeguards to ensure that e-mails were not deliberately or unintentionally altered or deleted.

When the Bush administration took office, it decided to replace the Lotus Notes-based e-mail system used under the Clinton Administration with Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. The transition broke compatibility with the old archiving system, and the White House IT shop did not immediately have a new one to put in its place.

Instead, the White House has instituted a comically primitive system called “journaling,” in which (to quote from a recent Congressional 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.” These would be manually named and saved as “.pst” files on White House servers.

As you can imagine hijinks ensue. The White House developed a new archiving system that was ready to go in 2006, but the White House CIO reportedly canceled the system just before it was due to go live. They’re supposedly working on yet another archiving system, but it’s looking increasingly likely that it won’t be ready before the Bush administration leaves office.

Transparency is an important tool for limited government. Senior administration officials are more likely to behave themselves if they know their correspondence is subject to subpoena and will be available for the scrutiny of future historians. It’s therefore troubling that for most of the last 8 years, the Bush administration has failed to have an automated system in place for complying with the law as his predecessor did. More pressure needs to be placed on the next administration to ensure that the law is followed.