White House Email Probe Wakeup Call To Businesses

    February 14, 2008

A federal judge has issued an order allowing the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington (CREW) to conduct "very limited" questioning of White House officials about email messages the group alleges are missing.

The group filed a lawsuit last May against the White House Office of Administration (OA) asking for access to White House email under the Freedom of Information Act. (FOIA). The administration maintains the OA is not subject to the FOIA request because it only advises and assists the president and should not be considered an agency.

District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly pointed out that the definition of an agency is not meant to cover the president’s immediate staff or the Executive Office of the President. (EOP).

The judge wrote that the question was if OA operates with "the type of substantial independent authority" that has led to the Office of Science and Technology, Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget to be legally labeled as federal agencies and subject to FOIA requests.

The White House and CREW were ordered by the judge to submit a discovery plan to the court by Feb.21.

Mike Osterman, president of Black Diamond, Osterman Research, said many businesses falsely believe that email is not a business record. Osterman said the White House’s legal problems over not being able to recover email from its own servers and backup systems could alert end users into realizing the legal consequences of inadequate retention policies.

"This should wake people up to what could happen if you don’t save email appropriately," Osterman told ComputerWorld. "It’s a good shot across the bow and a very good lesson for senior managers."