Search for White House e-mails could span administrations

Nonprofits are optimistic that President-elect Obama's promises for transparency could mean greater cooperation in finding lost messages.

Two nonprofit organizations are applauding a court victory that is likely to keep their efforts to retrieve missing White House e-mails afloat until the next -- and likely more cooperative -- administration takes office.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The U.S. Court for the District of Columbia on Monday denied White House lawyers' motion to dismiss the groups' separate 2007 complaints that the Bush administration failed to preserve electronic communications as required by the 1950 Federal Records Act.

"Even though the judge has not ultimately ruled [on the case], this decision is a tremendous victory," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for The George Washington University's National Security Archive, one of the organizations that launched a complaint. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a separate lawsuit.

Fuchs said the Bush administration will likely run out of time to recover the missing e-mails that may reside on backup tapes. That means the incoming administration must maintain those tapes as evidence for the court case -- regardless of whether they include documents that qualify as presidential records.

Come Jan. 20, however, the challenge of locating those elusive records will fall to the National Archives and Records Administration, which by law assumes responsibility for the custody, control and preservation of presidential records from previous administrations.

"We have every reason to believe [NARA] will try to do the right thing by recovering the missing e-mails, but who knows whether they have the resources for that kind of project," Fuchs said.

Support from the Obama administration certainly would help make the effort a priority. A major platform of his campaign was transparency in government.

"Obama has claimed to recognize how important it is for the White House to be accountable, which I hope means his office will make an effort to restore these e-mails and put some changes in place that have a greater impact [long term]," Fuchs said. "Every administration has had problems with this; hopefully Obama will stop that trend and prove it's possible for the White House to actually keep track of their records."

The White House has been under fire since a 2005 analysis identified a more than 700-day period during which e-mail records were either unrealistically low in number or nonexistent.