updated 1/14/2009 1:58:14 PM ET 2009-01-14T18:58:14

The Bush administration has been hit with a last-minute court order to preserve electronic messages, the result of long-standing problems with the White House's e-mail system.

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The preservation order comes amid fears by two private groups that the White House has failed to take the necessary steps to deal with the problem of millions of apparently missing e-mails.

The issue first surfaced publicly three years ago during the federal investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

Wednesday's order by U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy, directs the Executive Office of the President to issue a notice to its employees to surrender any e-mails from March 2003 to October 2005.

The court order covers a period that includes major events of the Bush administration, including the start of the war in Iraq and the first two years of the probe into the leak by top White House aides of the identity of Valerie Plame, wife of Bush administration war critic Joe Wilson.

In response, the White House said that it has made great progress in accounting for e-mail messages, but a spokesman declined further comment on that issue.

The Bush administration is in the process of transferring over 300 million e-mail messages to the National Archives, said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, in addition to over 25,000 boxes of records.

A lawyer for one of the groups that sued the Executive Office of the President over its e-mail problems criticized the White House for refusing to provide details of what it is doing to recover any missing e-mail.

"Instead of coming clean and telling the public what they have been doing to solve the crisis, they refused to say anything," said Washington attorney Sheila Shadmand, who is representing a private group, the National Security Archive, that sued the Bush administration over the e-mail issue a year and a half ago.

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