Despite legal safeguards, tens of millions of emails from the Bush administration were thought to be missing, the result of poor digital record keeping. That is, until this week, when two open-government groups secured the release of 22 million emails that had, somewhat miraculously, been found. Chief-counsel for Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, Anne Weismann explains the successful search.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Initially, the Bush Administration said they were gone, tens of millions of emails lost forever. The reason? Inadequate digital recordkeeping in the White House, this, despite two federal laws requiring that White House communications be preserved for the public record. And so, in 2007, after a Congressional request was ignored, two open government groups, the National Security Archive, or NSA, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, filed a joint lawsuit demanding the emails be recovered. And this week, they won. Some 22 million emails have been recovered so far, though many more may have been lost for good. Anne Weismann is Chief Counsel for CREW. Anne, welcome back to the show.
ANNE WEISMANN: Hi, how are you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good. So start with the bad news. How long until we know exactly what’s in those emails?
ANNE WEISMANN: Oh, it’s probably five to twelve years, depending. Most of them are probably covered by the Presidential Records Act, this law that says that they're not available for at least five years after the president leaves office. And the president can actually designate for certain reasons an additional seven years during which the public cannot get access to his records.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How were they found?
ANNE WEISMANN: Every system has a backup tape system in place that’s there in case of a system crash. What we didn't know and what we still don't know is just how complete those backup tapes are. What’s gone is gone; if it’s not on a backup tape we have no other way of getting it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Bush Administration often used outside email addresses, possibly to evade the records preservation dragnet, and the President didn't use email at all. But you don't think the emails were lost on purpose, do you?
ANNE WEISMANN: We don't know exactly what happened. There is evidence that White House staff knowingly used outside email accounts, and we know that the President, by and large, did not use email. But we just don't know enough here about what happened and why. I mean, we know that, just from a technical standpoint, they weren't using the right system, it didn't have the right controls in it; and that alone could account for why the emails are missing. Eventually we'd like to get the whole story, but I think that’s highly unlikely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think is in there that we need to know, or is it the principle that’s at stake here?
ANNE WEISMANN: It’s both. I mean, certainly the principle is very important. It’s the principle of accountability. But I think there is a chance that these particular records could prove to be very valuable. They cover some really critical events of the Bush Administration. They cover to what extent the Vice-President and his staff were involved in the disclosure of Valerie Plame Wilson’s covert CIA identity, the whole scandal over the firing of the U.S. attorneys and the White House’s role in that. They cover the build-up to war. And we are hopeful that some of what’s being restored will shed some light on that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you satisfied that there are procedures in place or procedures being implemented so that this doesn't happen again?
ANNE WEISMANN: Yes. Our lawsuit has really had three components, and the settlement that we reached with the Obama Administration addresses all three. We were interested in restoring as many of the missing emails as possible. We were interested in getting records that would give us some explanation of what happened, and perhaps why, and we are getting that. And the third thing we wanted was assurances that the White House now has an appropriate system in place. They have been willing to share with us documents that they do have such a system in place, and they are now in the process of preparing for public disclosure that will let the public also see how and why it is that they are now in compliance with their obligations. We do not face the same risk today that we did a number of years ago of losing a lot of our nation’s history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anne, thank you very much.
ANNE WEISMANN: Oh, you’re very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anne Weismann is Chief Counsel for the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.