WASHINGTON — The White House acknowledges recycling backup computer tapes of e-mail, a practice that may have wiped out many electronic messages from the early years of the Bush administration, including some pertaining to the CIA leak case.
The disclosure about recycled backup tapes came minutes before midnight Tuesday under a court-ordered deadline that forced the White House to reveal information it previously had refused to provide.
Before October 2003, the White House recycled its backup tapes "consistent with industry best practices," according to a sworn statement by a White House aide. The White House started preserving backup tapes in October 2003, shortly after the start of the inquiry into who outed CIA operative Valerie Plame that July.
The backup tapes, which contain documents in addition to e-mail, are the last line of defense for saving electronic records.
Separately, the White House says it is still unable to address the question of how many e-mails are missing from White House servers, or whether any are missing.
The White House "does not know if any e-mails were not properly preserved in the archiving process" from 2003 to 2005, said the statement by Theresa Payton, chief information officer for the White House Office of Administration. She said that the White House was continuing its efforts to find out and that an assessment would be completed in the "near term."
Two years ago, Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald disclosed a White House e-mail problem, which the White House says it discovered in October 2005.
"What has the White House been doing for two years?" asked Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, one of two groups suing over the e-mail issue. "The White House still doesn't seem to have a clue."
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, "As we have repeatedly stated, we do not know that there is actually a problem" with missing e-mail.
That drew immediate challenges from the other group suing the White House, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
CREW's lawsuit alleges that 5 million White House e-mails are missing, and the group said recently that its sources now said the total was more than 10 million. CREW's chief counsel, Anne Weismann, pointed to previous White House statements suggesting there were missing e-mails and that the White House was refusing to turn over numerous documents about the problem.
"Why have they retreated from their earlier acknowledgments that e-mails are, in fact, missing?" Weismann asked.
If e-mails were not saved on computer servers and copies were overwritten on backup tapes, the White House might have violated two laws requiring preservation of documents that fall into the categories of federal records or presidential records.
Experience in the private sector has shown that "backup tapes are a treasure trove for investigators, and when you recycle those tapes, you are disposing of e-mails," said Michele C.S. Lange, a legal technologies director at Kroll Ontrack of Minneapolis. Lange's firm recovers lost e-mail for companies and law firms. It has no connection to the White House e-mail controversy.
Among the e-mails that could be lost are messages swapped by any White House officials involved in discussions about leaking Plame's identity.
"It appears that the White House has now destroyed the evidence of its misconduct," Weismann said.
Fratto, the spokesman, said, "There is no basis to say that the White House has destroyed any evidence or engaged in any misconduct."