The White House is missing as many as 225 days of e-mail dating back to 2003 and there is little if any likelihood a recovery effort will be completed by the time the Bush administration leaves office, according to an internal White House draft document obtained by The Associated Press.
The nine-page outline of the White House's e-mail problems invites companies to bid on a project to recover the missing electronic messages.
The work would be carried out through April 19, 2009, according to the Office of Administration request for contractors' proposals, which was dated June 20.
Last week, the White House declined to comment on the document.
On Wednesday, the White House refused to talk about internal White House contracting procedures, but said the information is "outdated and seriously inaccurate." It would not elaborate. The White House also declined to say whether it has hired a contractor for the work yet.
"With an eye on the clock, the White House continues to drag its feet and do everything possible to postpone public access to the records of this presidency," said Anne Weismann, chief counsel to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a private watchdog group.
The draft document outlines a process in which private contractors would attempt to retrieve lost e-mail from 35,000 disaster recovery backup tapes dating back to October 2003, a period covering such events as growing violence in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the criminal probe into the disclosure that Valerie Plame had worked for the CIA.
The recovery project would not use backup tapes going back to March 2003, according to the draft document, even though an earlier White House assessment suggested e-mails were missing from that period as well.
Industry experts point out that relying on the backup system to ensure accurate retention, preservation and retrieval of all e-mails is problematic because it does not take into account deleted e-mails.
"A backup system isn't designed to be a 100 percent complete inventory of all e-mails," says William P. Lyons, chairman and chief executive of AXS-One, a provider of records compliance management solutions.
"It's designed to make a copy of data at a specific point-in-time," said Lyons. "Data is backed up on a daily, weekly and monthly basis as part of a disaster recovery strategy, to ensure to protect the organization from data loss."
The White House draft document says that the number of days of missing e-mail ranges from 25 to 225, a range that industry experts say would make it difficult to bid on a recovery project.
"Generally, when the scope of the work is expected to fluctuate by a factor of nearly ten, I can only take you so seriously," said Steve Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement program at George Washington University.
"Contractors cannot accurately plan for or staff based on such an estimate," said Schooner.
Earlier estimate was higher
At a hearing on Capitol Hill in February, the White House told Congress it was trying to determine how many e-mails were missing. An earlier analysis from 2005 estimated the number of days of missing e-mails at 473 over a period of 20 months.
While the higher number would appear to suggest the White House has found a large amount of previously missing e-mail, that may not necessarily be the case. Industry experts say it is unclear from the brief description in the draft document whether the missing-day measurements in that document and those in the earlier analysis can be compared.
"We will continue to work with members of Congress and the National Archives and will communicate the results of our accounting effort at an appropriate time," White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has said the White House's failure to properly archive e-mails violated the Presidential Records Act. The top lawyer for the National Archives has expressed disappointment the White House did not have a formal records management system in place.