Bush's exit to put new e-records system to the test

The US Government Accountability Office and others question the readiness of its new Electronic Records Archives program.

For members of the Bush administration, January 20, 2009, marks the end of a job. However, for the staff of the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), it's just the beginning of a project unprecedented in size and scope: sorting, indexing, preserving and ensuring access to all the records, both paper and electronic, created by the administration over the past eight years.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Since 1978, when the Presidential Records Act was established, NARA has been tasked with taking custody of, controlling, preserving and providing access to all presidential and vice presidential records that have administrative, historical, informational or evidentiary value. The act requires that the day the president leaves office, presidential records become the legal responsibility of the archivist of the US.

However, given the rise in electronic communications, the volume of electronic records has exploded. Consider that NARA received only a few hundred thousand e-mail messages from the first Bush presidency and 32 million from the Clinton White House, according to Ken Thibodeau, director of NARA's Electronic Records Archives (ERA) Program, whose mission is to meet the many challenges stemming from increasing use of computers in government, including building a new archiving system, scheduled for completion in 2011. In comparison, it expects a whopping 140TB of data from the current Bush administration, more than 50 times what it received from the Clinton years. About 20TB of that is e-mail, Thibodeau says.

It hasn't helped that the Bush administration has been slow in providing NARA with needed information about the types and volume of data that will need to be archived. It wasn't until this summer that an intensive effort began to share information, Thibodeau says.

Much of the discussion has centered on how the White House will provide records in a format that is reasonably easy to use, since some of the systems are highly proprietary. "There's still some risk that some of it may not work exactly right, but we have a contingency plan: If that happens, we'll re-create the systems they have and access the records that way," he says.

Adding to the drama, questions have been raised about millions of missing e-mails from between March 2003 and October 2006. In early November, a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive was upheld, challenging the White House's failure to properly store and recover millions of emails. In 2002, the Executive Office of the President stopped using the Automated Records Management System that had been in place since 1994, which automatically backed up all e-mails, but failed to install any other backup program.

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Mary Brandel

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