White House ordered to search employee computers for missing e-mails

Directive, which includes memory sticks, CDs and DVDs, is part of the effort to find missing messages during more than two years.

A federal court ordered on Wednesday all employees working in the Bush White House to surrender media that might contain e-mails sent or received during a two and a half year period in hope of locating missing messages before President-elect Barack Obama takes over next week.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted an emergency motion to extend an order to protect missing White House e-mails. The Bush administration has been under fire since a 2005 analysis identified a period of more than 700 days during which the number of White House e-mails were either unrealistically low or nonexistent.

George Washington University's National Security Archive and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed separate lawsuits in 2007 against the Executive Office of the President and the National Archives and Records Administration to preserve and restore the missing e-mails. CREW's lawsuit has since been consolidated into the security archive's lawsuit.

The motion to extend the order to protect the missing e-mails was filed by the National Security Archive on March 11, 2008, to track down the e-mails before the transition to the Obama administration on Jan. 20. That's the day when the Bush administration will transfer its White House records to the National Archives and Records Administration.

U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. ordered the Bush White House to "search the workstations, and any .PST files located therein, of any individuals who were employed between March 2003 and October 2005, and collect and preserve all e-mails sent or received" during that period. Also, the Executive Office of the President must "issue a preservation notice to its employees directing them to surrender any media in their possession -- irrespective of the intent with which it was created -- that may contain e-mails sent or received between March 2003 and October 2005, and . . . collect and preserve all such media."

"[This order] means that each of those White House staffers will have to turn over their memory sticks, CDs and DVDs as they walk out the door," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for National Security Archive. "It means that White House IT personnel will have to go computer to computer to download files."

Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola issued two reports in April 2008 and July 2008, recommending the order to search, surrender and preserve workstations and external media devices be granted. Additional measures to protect the records during the transition will be considered at an emergency status conference this afternoon, which Facciola scheduled.

"The hearing is supposed to look at whether additional measures are necessary to preserve access to evidence and to protect the backup tapes," Fuchs said. "Hopefully, the White House will be forced to provide some details on what the White House is doing on those counts."