Just before the Bush administration left the White House, a judge ordered a search of all White House computers, giving the National Security Archive – housed in Gelman Library – a key breakthrough in a lawsuit they have led since 2007.
A report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington uncovered that more than five million White House e-mails were unaccounted for and the administration had poorly preserved White House documents, violating the Presidential Records Act. The report prompted the Archive, a nonprofit research and analysis institute, to file a lawsuit against the Executive Office of the President in September 2007.
“The Bush White House broke the law by failing to properly preserve millions of e-mails, which are government records that belong to the American people,” said Kristin Adair, staff counsel for the Archive.
Adair said the missing e-mails were sent between March 2003 and October 2005, and it is still unclear whether e-mails concerning the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina or the torture at Abu Ghraib have been saved.
On Jan. 14, on the cusp of a new administration, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. granted the Archive’s preservation order, which requested that all White House staff surrender all media and back-up tapes to ensure preservation.
Although this marked a major breakthrough in the case, the lawsuit still stands. And now that the Bush administration has left, the Obama EOP becomes the defendant.
The Obama White House has exhibited a “sharp departure from the secretive policies of the previous administration” as President Obama has already declared his commitment to transparency throughout all government agencies, Adair said.
“It’s clear that President Obama is committed to openness, transparency and public participation in government,” Adair said.
She added, “Obama’s strong endorsement of a presumption of openness for government records sets a new tone for federal agencies. It encourages government employees to release information when there is no good reason to withhold it, so a lot more information should make it into the public domain.”
Adair hopes that Obama’s commitment to transparency and technology will help “break through the bureaucracy and bring government technologically into the 21st century.”
This is not the first lawsuit filed by the archives regarding the retrieval of White House documents. Adair said in 1989 they filed a similar preservation order against the Reagan administration requesting that under the Presidential Records Act they preserve electronic media. The Archive won, and the electronic messages and documents were preserved and sent to the National Archives.
If Bush White House e-mails are retrieved, there is a five-year period until the documents can be requested through the Freedom of Information Act.