Emails on the Iraq War, CIA operative name leaks, and actions by the U.S. Justice Department were accidentally taped over; now one Judge demands answers

Federal Judge The ruling pertained to the case of Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics watchdog group's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for access to White House email.  When access was not granted, the group sued the White House Office of Administration in May, demanding access under the FOIA.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly ruled this week that the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics could submit a plan for discovery to the court by February 21, 2008.  If the plan was acceptable the case will proceed to a discovery phase where the group can question White House officials.  The goal of the discovery process is determined whether the White House is subject to FOI request, or whether it has immunity from them as White House officials have insisted.

The ruling to allow the case to proceed to discovery is a clear victory for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and a headache for the White House.  The nonprofit group demands access to emails concerning several contentious issues, including the reasons for launching the Iraq War, the release of a CIA operative's name and actions by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The White House Administration says that it can not comply as the emails are destroyed.  The White House admits it routinely copied over its backup tapes from 2001 to 2003, destroying most of the previous contents.  The White House claims this is an innocent record keeping error, while some groups and individuals argue that its a willful attempt to destroy their digital paper-trail.

Presidential historian and author Robert Dallek stated, "Given how secretive this administration has been, it of course fans the flames and suspicions about what has been destroyed here. I hope we'll get an investigation."

The subsequent case by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics is drawing a surprising following -- computer storage experts.  Storage experts showcase the case as a need to implement effective backup systems to avoid legal hassles.  If you've got nothing to hide, don't make it look like you're hiding something, back it up, they say. 

Mike Osterman, president of Black Diamond, Wash. based Osterman Research Inc. says that many large businesses and organization operate under the false premise that email is not part of their business record.  He complains, "A lot of people are not implementing e-mail archiving [processes]; they're saving e-mail, but not in a cohesive or consistent way.  Companies can say 'Yes, we need to archive,' but [the process] must be policy-driven and taken out of users' hands."

He describes the White House's woes as a good learning experience, calling it a "good shot across the bow and a very good lesson for senior managers."

This exact principle landed Intel in legal trouble last year when AMD alleged the company carelessly destroyed backups pertinent to antitrust litigation. 

Another expert, Lauren Whitehouse, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group states that many entities lack the ability to optimize backups and make crucial data easy to get ahold of.  Whitehouse points out that people trend to two extremes -- paranoia or carelessness.  She states, "Everyone is afraid to throw anything away. All that [stored data] on the production system isn't pruned. It's all just continually backed up.  [Paranoia] is a characteristic of a lot of companies out there, and they're not repeatedly optimizing their backups."

Whitehouse says, "As unsexy as it is, we need to make sure we're doing it right and we have the right level of resources applied to [backup]."

Meanwhile the White House is left to try to develop a defense to establish that its negligence was accidental and not willful.

"We’re Apple. We don’t wear suits. We don’t even own suits." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs

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