Sunday, December 21, 2008

Bush e-mails

According to the Washington Post, the transfer of Bush administration e-mail messages to the National Archives might, for a variety of reasons, go less smoothly than desired:
Federal law requires outgoing White House officials to provide the Archives copies of their records, a cache estimated at more than 300 million messages and 25,000 boxes of documents depicting some of the most sensitive policymaking of the past eight years.

But archivists are uncertain whether the transfer will include all the electronic messages sent and received by the officials, because the administration began trying only in recent months to recover from White House backup tapes hundreds of thousands of e-mails that were reported missing from readily accessible files in 2005.

The risks that the transfer may be incomplete are also pointed up by a continuing legal battle between a coalition of historians and nonprofit groups over access to Vice President Cheney's records. The coalition is contesting the administration's assertion in federal court this month that he "alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records" and "how his records will be created, maintained, managed, and disposed," without outside challenge or judicial review.
As the Post points out, previous administrations have also experienced technical difficulties or simply didn't want to transfer some electronic records to the National Archives. However, as Robert Blanton of the National Security Archive is quoted as saying, the quantity of electronic records created by the Bush Administration is much larger than that created by past administrations; as a result, both the cost of and the amount of time needed to recover improperly stored electronic records are going to be higher than they were in the past.

Another complicating factor: some White House aides improperly used Republican National Committee e-mail accounts to conduct official business. All such e-mail messages are subject to federal records laws, even if they were created and sent using non-governmental e-mail accounts. Administration officials are apparently negotiating with the RNC to secure copies of messages that meet the legal definition of a presidential record, but at present it doesn't seem that there is any definite timeframe for doing so.

The article notes that transfers of paper records from the White House to Dallas, where the George W. Bush Presidential Library will be located, and to NARA's Electronic Records Archives (identified in the story as "a remote Navy research center in the mountains of West Virginia") have already begun
At the Navy base, all the electronic data are supposed to be "ingested" by a new electronic system meant to allow such efficient cataloguing, indexing and searching that millions of documents can eventually be provided to researchers and citizens online.
"Ingested": I wasn't expecting to find Open Archival Information System terminology in a newspaper article. Maybe all of the attention being devoted to the Electronic Records Archives and the controversies surrounding presidential electronic records will gradually popularize the term.

The article goes on to explain some of the development and budget problems that the Electronic Records Archives project has experienced, and it includes a snippet of information about its e-mail searching capability:
The system, which has been under development for a decade by Lockheed Martin and other contractors at a cost of $67.5 million, will rely on software created after the collapse of Enron, when that company's creditors demanded new tools for quickly sorting its e-mail trove to find damaging information.
I wish the National Archives folks all the best as they take in truly mammoth quantities of electronic records, and I'll be interested in seeing what happens in the coming weeks, months, and years.

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