November 11, 2008

Bush's Email-gate

After the American Century

As President Bush prepares to leave Washington, we begin to think about his legacy. Unfortunately, full evaluation of his eight years in office may be difficult because he has not kept good records. In 2003 the White House was busy with many things, including the build-up to the Iraq War. The records from that year might be particularly interesting to historians, and they are crucial to understanding how the Bush government decided, mistakenly, that weapons of mass destruction were being hidden by Saddam Hussein. However, much of the email from that year, perhaps 225 days, may be lost. Electronic accident? or expunged?

The losses begin, conveniently enough, during the build-up to the Iraq War . The missing mail also includes records related to the CIA-leak case, in which White House personnel "outed" one of their own agents, apparently as political revenge. This led to the prosecution and conviction of "Scooter" Libby, one of Dick Cheney's closest aids.

Some email has also apparently disappeared for 2004 and 2005, perhaps as many as 5 million pages in all, according to CREW, a non-profit watchdog organization concerned with ethics in government. However, it is possible that all this material still exists in White House servers - but no one writing about this on the Internet seems to know. In fact, if all the emails are entirely lost from every server, that result almost required systematic record destruction

The Federal Records Act requires the preservation of all presidential papers, including emails. Yet it appears that George Bush and his team have been both careless in preservation and lax in recovery efforts. In contrast, the Clinton White House had an automatic archiving system that made copies of all emails. When the Bush team chose a new email system in 2002, however, they did not include automatic archiving. Instead, each email had to be manually renamed and saved. This sounds like a ludicrous, make-work program most of the time, but also it also potentially provides a chance to omit the damaging email now and again. But 225 days in one year? Perhaps 473 days in all? 5 million messages?

Such incompetence (or is it the intentional loss of damaging information?) may be hard to believe. But then these are Republicans. A Republican President, Richard Nixon, erased vital parts of the Watergate tapes. In the Irangate scandal, the Reagan White House, tried (unsuccessfully) to erase incriminating information as well. There is a pattern here, and it should more than embarrass the Republicans. There appear to be grounds for a criminal investigation, because the Bush Administration was aware of the problem already in 2002, but failed to fix it for six years. During most of the two Bush terms, many people may have been able to delete emails from their accounts or even from the servers. Historians will not be able to trust this partial record.

At the same time, Dick Cheney at times has been doing official business using a private email account. This is illegal because it skirts the legal requirements of the Federal Records Act, and makes it even easier to eliminate anything illegal, incriminating or embarrassing.

The Bush White House has systematically undermined the record keeping process. The legacy of these eight years is apparently rife with evasion and destruction of evidence. Will anyone be prosecuted?

For a chronology of this unfolding scandal and more information, go to The National Security Archive.