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White House Snubs Records Management Laws with Faulty Adherence to Federal Records Act

Under the Federal Records Act each federal agency, with help from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is required to maintain records that document their organization, functions, policies and activities. It is explicitly noted that Federal records should not be destroyed except when in accordance with the procedures described in Chapter 33 of Title 44, United States Code. Recently, in the Washington Post, we find out that not only does the White House lack a comprehensive email archiving solution but past solutions have been riddled with numerous record-keeping problems:

  • Several years of electronic communications have been lost that might have documented administrative happenings around the Iraq war
  • The White House has recently admitted that they have problems with archiving and finding emails
  • The National Security Archive, along with the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has accused the White House in lawsuits of violating the Federal Records Act.
  • The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released details in a 2005 White House study that identified 473 separate days in which no emails were stored for multiple offices

Losing email or recorded communication is not a new occurrence in the White House. Similar issues were raised around the Clinton administration when congressional probes found that hundreds of thousands of White House emails had been lost. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) might take the stance that certain administrative offices did not implement adequate record management practices. Frankly, we would go one step further and say they implemented just enough that it still gave them the freedom to tweak and manipulate record management practices. After all, how could so many electronic pieces of information get “lost” during such important times in American history when government agencies traditionally have access to the best technology that money can buy?

The Washington Post report also makes the point that even though the White House records management system was finally fixed by the end of the Clinton administration, the current Bush administration decided to phase out the system. This makes no sense in light of what technologies are available for the email system used by the White House. It has moved to Microsoft Exchange (used by over 60% of American businesses and for which reliable email archiving software is readily available) and, according to a recent White House affidavit, utilizes two systems to store electronic messages:

  • Backup tapes that could be used in a DR scenario
  • An archive that is part of its e-mail software (we are assuming this archive is Microsoft Exchange’s native archiving solution but not positive)

The fact that the White House has decided to implement email retention with both tape backup and Microsoft Exchange’s options present some interesting problems, especially when you take into consideration its inability to adequately perform eDiscoveries against either of these two email repositories. Backups are great for creating a point-in-time recovery of information but are unable to recover to the point of failure–any deletes or newly created emails that might have occurred between the last backup and the failure are likely permanently lost. And storing data on tape using backup software is no guarantee it will be available for recovery (as we have seen during prior White House administrations, tapes are too easily and mysteriously over-written) and data on tape is certainly not easy to retrieve and search.

All government agencies, including the White House irrespective of what party is in power, need to get in step with the times and comply with today’s Federal records management laws that they impose upon those who they govern and who they expect to comply. Centralized email archiving solutions such as Estorian LookingGlass offer these governmental agencies ample features and functionality (centralized email archives, enforcement of preset retention policies, data reduction and much more) that there is no reason that email stores for any government agency should be viewed as inaccessible, unrecoverable or unsearchable. The laws concerning email retention and protection are clear and the technologies are available to make it happen. The only problem it seems is finding people smart enough (or ethical enough) to administer these systems and that is something no technology will unfortunately ever fix.

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