The White House acknowledged in a court filing last night that it no longer has backup tapes of email from between March 1 and May 22, 2003, a period that includes the beginning of the Iraq war.
Yesterday's filing (PDF) is the latest development in the ongoing White House emails lawsuit, in which two non-profits, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive (NSA), are suing to force the administration to recover any missing emails and institute a more effective email archiving system. (For the full story on the missing emails, check out our missing White House emails index.) The filing comes on the heels of several seemingly contradictory statements by administration officials about whether the allegedly missing emails are available on backup tapes. The court had asked the administration to clear up the confusion by clearly stating which backup tapes it does and does not have for the period between March 2003 and October 2005.
In their filing, administration officials claim they have 438 backup tapes for the period between May 23, 2003 and September 29, 2003. The White House stopped its foolish policy of recycling backup tapes in early October 2003, so all the backup tapes made after that date are supposedly preserved—some 60,000 of them. But even the emergency recovery backup tapes the White House does have are far from a fool-proof source for recovering missing emails. Any email that arrived and was deleted in between backups wouldn't be preserved, since backup tapes take a digital "picture" of the data on a drive at a given time. And while that problem applies to all the backups, it's especially concerning for the period between May 23 and September 29, 2003, for which the White House says it has 438 backup tapes. That is a low number of backup tapes per day for an entity as large as the Executive Office of the President, so backups may not have been made for all offices in the EOP on all days during that time. Even if backups were made every day for every component of the EOP, emails could still escape archiving if they were sent, received, and deleted in between backups.