WASHINGTON — The mystery of the missing White House e-mails is likely never to be solved, its plot so convoluted that even Henry Waxman, the dogged House investigator who has brought to light such unseemliness as contracting scandals in Iraq reconstruction, seems to be flummoxed.

“None of this makes any sense,” Waxman said in opening a hearing into the White House’s failure to create a comprehensive system for consistently, accurately and completely preserving official presidential records that are contained in e-mail messages.

What started out looking like just another Bush administration political scandal — the discovery that e-mails that pertained to the Valerie Plame leak investigation were missing and the revelation that dozens of senior administration officials used a Republican National Committee e-mail system to conduct public business — now looks like something else: That is, the White House has repeatedly and incoherently failed to properly safeguard a massive trove of public records that are required by law to be saved for the National Archives, and which are the property of the American people.

In a nutshell, here is what happened: When the Bush administration took office, it inherited a custom-made system for properly archiving e-mails that had been installed during President Bill Clinton’s tenure. Notably, the system was put in place under court order, and in answer to Republican investigators who sought White House e-mails that turned out to have been deleted. All e-mails eventually were recovered.

After about a year, the Bush team decided to abandon the archiving system. It wanted to switch to a new e-mail system altogether, in part, according to Steven McDevitt, a former White House technology official who was involved in the change, because the senior staff was used to a different system from their days in the Bush campaign, and in part because it was believed to have better capabilities. From the start, technology officials warned that the archiving system Clinton had installed wouldn’t work well with the new Microsoft Exchange e-mail program and pushed for a different system to be put in place.

That was in 2002. Six years later, no system comparable to the Clinton-era backup process has been installed.

At times, a manual system of moving e-mails into electronic files for storage was used, a process that had serious risks, McDevitt told Waxman’s staff. Data could be lost; there is “no way to guarantee that all records are retained in their complete and unmodified state;” and no way to verify whether stored data was tampered with.

The failure to put in place a comprehensive and reliable system could lead to an “inability to meet statutory requirements,” McDevitt wrote in a 2005 memo to another White House official. Translation: The administration was warned it could end up breaking the law.

The White House says it does indeed archive e-mail, that it could always go to “disaster recovery tapes,” and that it is “engaged with” the RNC to restore any missing messages.

However, Theresa Payton, the chief White House information officer, testified that her staff “does not know if any e-mails were not properly preserved.” And by the way, the White House is “in the process” of deploying a more comprehensive archiving system — one already approved by the Defense Department and “widely used in the federal government,” Payton says.

If there is an archiving system that meets security requirements and already is “widely used” elsewhere in the government, why is it not in the White House? Is there a business of any kind, anywhere, that would put up with this nonchalance?

The lapse has maddening similarities to so much that has occurred over the past seven years. Is it incompetence, malevolence, or deep-seated disdain for the public’s right to know what has gone on during a tumultuous presidency that historians will be eager to probe?

The president began his first term by trying to rewrite the Presidential Records Act through an executive order that effectively gutted the Watergate-era law, giving former presidents, and even vice presidents, such tight control over release of their papers that Richard Nixon would smile from his grave. Now we come to find out that the historical record of the Bush presidency may be easiest of all to keep secret — because at this point, an unknowable portion of it might not even exist.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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