WASHINGTON A computer expert who worked at the White House provided the first inside look at its e-mail system Tuesday, calling it a "primitive" setup that created a "high" risk that data would be lost.
Steven McDevitt's written statements placed on the public record at a congressional hearing asserted that a study by White House technical staff in October 2005 turned up an estimated 1,000 days on which e-mail was missing.
Two federal laws require electronic messages to be preserved.
Before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the White House defended the Bush administration's handling of its electronic messages.
"We are very energized about getting to the bottom of this" issue, testified Theresa Payton, chief information officer at the White House Office of Administration.
"This is a form of sandbagging," replied Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who pointed out that by the time the White House fixes its e-mail problems, "you'll be out of office."
In a report presented at the hearing, Waxman's Democratic staff said difficulties arose in recovering e-mails for Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the CIA leak probe.
There were no archived e-mails from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney from Sept. 30, 2003 to Oct. 6, 2003, just as the Justice Department was launching its investigation into whether anyone at the White House leaked Valerie Plame's CIA identity, according to documents provided to the House panel. The only e-mails that could be recovered for prosecutors were from the personal e-mail accounts of officials in Cheney's office, according to the report by Waxman's staff.
McDevitt's statements detailed shortcomings that he said have plagued the White House e-mail system for six years. He declared that:
The White House had no complete inventory of e-mail files.
There was no automatic system to ensure that e-mails were archived and preserved.
Until mid-2005 the e-mail system had serious security flaws, in which "everyone" on the White House computer network had access to e-mail. McDevitt wrote that the "potential impact" of the security flaw was that there was no way to verify that retained data had not been modified.
A new e-mail archiving system that would have addressed the problems was "ready to go live" on Aug. 21, 2006.
Payton told Waxman's committee she canceled the new system in late 2006 because it would have required modifications and additional spending. An alternative system is under way, she said.
Payton's predecessor, Carlos Solari, told the House committee that he was puzzled that the new system had been rejected and that he had "absolutely" believed that the system Payton rejected would be implemented.
When President Bush leaves office, presidential records and federal records at the White House will be turned over to the National Archives.
Waxman produced a memo pointing to a lack of cooperation between the White House and the National Archives.
"We still know virtually nothing about the status of the alleged missing White House e-mails," the National Archives' general counsel, Gary Stern, wrote to his boss last September.