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Obama White House makes deal to retrieve Bush-era emails (and keep tabs on its own)

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, December 15 2009

Archiving emails is no fun for anyone, but when you're the folks sitting in the white hot seat of global power known as the White House, it's a necessary evil. The Obama Administration has just come to a long-awaited agreement with two Washington-based groups -- Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (a.k.a. CREW) and the National Security Archives based at George Washington University -- over a 2007 lawsuit concerning millions of emails that went missing during the Bush Administration. What might have seemed technical turned political during the 2004 investigation of the leaking of Valerie Plame's as a CIA operative, when it turned out that White House emails subpoenaed by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald were nowhere to be found.

As part of the agreement, the Obama White House says it will take steps to restore emails that the Bush White House neglected to archive during the time it made a switch from a Lotus Notes e-mail system to a Microsoft Exchange system. The wobbly Clinton-era archiving technology that the Bush White House had in place wasn't, as it turned out, capable of automatically handling Exchange's .pst files. But the White House moved to the new system anyway. Under the arrangement reached yesterday, the Obama White House will focus on using backup tapes to restore emails from 94 calendar days identified by participants in the talks as unrepresented or underrepresented in the archives currently available. That cache of restore emails will eventually be made public.

In coming to terms with CREW and the NSA, team Obama is required to prove that it isn't going to repeat the IT errors of the past administrations. ComputerWorld reports that the Obama White House has until January 15th to tell the country how it aims to hang on to its own electronic correspondence:

The settlement also requires the White House provide a publicly releasable letter "describing in as much detail as possible" the current Executive Office of the President computer systems, including its e-mail, archiving and backup systems. "This document will include a detailed description of the controls in the system that prevents the unauthorized deletion of records," the settlement says.

Here's the agreement, and NSA has a helpful timeline of the case.