IT politics killed White House email project

IT politics killed White House email project

Summary: Data archiving in the White House is a serious business mandated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which was passed following the Watergate scandal. The Act requires the White House to maintain an historical archive of its activities, policies, and decisions. Despite this law, the White House email archiving system is a model of poor IT practice and has been called "primitive," "inadequate," and "not robust." The system fails to fulfill its most basic requirements: enabling reliable backup, storage, and restore capabilities.

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Data archiving in the White House is a serious business mandated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which was passed following the Watergate scandal.The Act requires the White House to maintain an historical archive of its activities, policies, and decisions. Despite this law, the White House email archiving system is a model of poor IT practice and has been called "primitive," "inadequate," and "not robust." The system fails to fulfill its most basic requirements: enabling reliable backup, storage, and restore capabilities.

Email backup process. Quoted in a report by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, White House CIO, Theresa Payton, described how White House emails are archived using a manual method called "journaling:"

Under this process, a White House staffer or contractor would collect from a "journal" e-mail folder in the Microsoft Exchange system copies of e-mails sent and received by White House employees. After retrieving copies of these e-mails, the White House staffer or contractor would then manually name and save them as ".pst" files on various White House servers.

Former White House CIO, Carlos Solari, characterized the process:

[A]s a 'message collection system' even though we all understand that it hardly qualifies as a 'system' by the usual IT definition.

In a memo to Acting CIO, John Straub, in 2005, IT manager, John McDevitt, described the ad hoc system:

The current email archive process depends on manual operations and monitoring, standard operating procedures do not exist, automated tools that support the email archive process are not robust, and there is no dedicated archive storage location.

The report points out at least three fatal flaws with the manual email archive process:

  • Risk of data loss
  • Risk of tampering
  • Inability to verify system functionality

Email archiving project failure. In 2003, the White House initiated an Electronic Communications Records Management System (ECRMS) project to automate email archiving. Booz Allen Hamilton was contracted to design the system and Unisys was engaged to test and implement it. According to the internal government program director for the project, John McDevitt, the project was completed in the spring of 2004:

According to Mr. McDevitt, this design was presented to the White House Counsel, the White House Office of Records Management, and counsel in the Office of Administration "for their concurrence" in the spring of 2004. With Unisys serving as the contractor for the implementation phase, the White House undertook "[s]ystem configuration, testing and tuning" through 2005. In early 2006, standard operating procedures were developed. In March 2006, the White House Counsel, the White House Office of Records Management, and OA counsel were briefed on the system, and in July of 2006, they were briefed "on the search and retrieval capabilities of the ECRMS solution." Mr. McDevitt stated that the project was "ready to go live" on August 21, 2006.

Although the ECMRS was ready for use, current White House CIO, Theresa Payton, terminated the project in 2006 because:

"[t]he system would require 18 months to ingest the existing backlog of messages in the Microsoft Xchange system" and "[t]he system offered users no option to distinguish between Presidential records and political or personal materials."

The National Archives responded with objections to these reasons, suggesting they did not present sufficient cause to abandon the completed project and revert to manual, and therefore unreliable, email backup techniques.

THE PROJECT FAILURES ANALYSIS

Politics and other personal (and organizational) agendas are usually to blame for IT failure. By any reasonable measure, the guardians of White House email used poor IT practice as a tool to circumvent applicable law, avoid disclosure, and maintain control over sensitive data.

Since IT underlies most modern business and government processes, decisions about software, infrastructure, and deployment can have broad ramifications for how leaders execute business strategy. In this case, it appears IT leadership deliberately made poor technical decisions to achieve a specific political strategy.

Update 5/6/08 5:00pm EST: To gain further insight into this situation, I spoke with David Gewirtz, author of the book Where Have All the Emails Gone?. Here's what David said:

White House email is broken. Their email archiving system is wildly inadequate to the point of negligence. Management of computer assets like laptops, flash drives, and BlackBerrys is completely non-existent.

Email in the White House needs to be fixed. Not because we want to give Congress a bigger stick with which to beat on Presidents, but because some really bad things could happen if it's not fixed. There are technical issues and concerns, plus security issues and concerns that blast through the political rhetoric and even party affiliation. The practice of archiving is a technical act, while the practice of disclosing is a political or policy act.

We need to make sure we archive the White House email traffic, but that doesn't mean confidential information must be disclosed to opposing parties or the general public.

Finally, there is breaking news out of the White House today. The White House has responded to Judge Facciola's request for disclosure of email messages during the first term of the Bush administration. I've just gotten those court documents and am working my way through them now. The gist of them seems to be that the White House does not believe further document recovery is warranted. I'm going to be working my way through the full document set and will publish an analysis of it, probably tomorrow.

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5 comments
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  • Defective By Design

    I think the whole IDEA was to have a sloppy, impossible to manage system! How ironic, the MOMENT they need critical emails, they just "happened" to have been deleted, and not archived, because you have minimum wage types hand filing emails, and darn aren't those kooky IT types funny sometimes! They might as well have been using manila folders, at least then you could say they were shredded.

    This was set up specifically to fail, and now the Bush Administration has their scapegoat to protect them.

    I swear, I wasn't a tin-foil hatter before this administration took over...
    superbus
    • DITTO

      The intent was to circumvent the law while providing plausable deniability.
      chuck@...
  • Details, please

    Wouldn't surprise me if the White House staff are dragging their feet on e-mail retention so they don't lose plausible deniability, but you really don't make that case.

    Assuming you're right, I see this as yet another example of President Bush and his staff trying to circumvent laws they don't like instead of seeking their repeal. Sorry to say, this appears to be par for the course in Washington nowadays.
    John L. Ries
    • More Like Ideology Kills e-Mail Archive

      I think we can draw our own conclusions based on the facts.

      From the Congressional hearing (Michael supplied the link), it is clear that:

      * By law (Presidential Records Act), the White House is required to preserve emails documenting the "activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies" of the President.

      * The Clinton administration used Lotus Notes as its e-mail backbone, and the Automatic Records Management System (ARMS) as its archiving system.

      * The GW Bush (Bush 43) administration chose to switch from Notes to MS Exchange and abandon the ARMS and use e-mail journaling.

      * "Over 80 White House officials, including many of the most senior officials in the White House, regularly used RNC e-mail accounts. The RNC, however, has preserved no e-mails for over 50 of these officials and has saved few e-mails for the other officials from before fall2006."

      * The RNC "has no intention" of giving National Archives and Records Administration these e-mails, which the RNC has stored and backed up

      This administration has not been shy about independence and superiority of the office of the presidency. It's been aggressive in its resistance to the principle that there should be oversight of the office of presidency. It?s a small leap to think that lack of e-mail backup/ archive is in fact an act of push back on oversight. I can appreciate the logic-?if you can archive, then someone can review; if you can review, then someone can judge; if someone can make a judgment, then you can have oversight, censure, and accountability.

      To me, this isn?t IT politics at work, or even politics, it?s ideology at work and simple e-mail becomes more than simple e-mail.
      elizab
      • In which case...

        ...the honest thing to do is to ask Congress to repeal the law. Sorry to say, this administration has been far more likely to circumvent, ignore, or twist laws they don't like than to seek their repeal.
        John L. Ries