Officials for US president George Bush have admitted that an unknown number of emails at the centre of a political row over the firing of eight government lawyers have been deleted.
White House spokesperson Scott Stanzel admitted that some officials may have used party-political email accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee to discuss official government business.
The US Congress – controlled by the Democrats – has been pressing for details of the Republican party email accounts used by around 20 White House officials as part of a probe into the firing of the eight lawyers. Congress representatives are seeking to prove that the sackings were political.
But Stanzel said some of the emails may have been lost because the Republican National Committee has a policy of deleting emails from its accounts approximately once a month – although emails from non-political White House accounts are automatically archived.
“Some official emails have potentially been lost and that is a mistake the White House is aggressively working to correct,” Stanzel admitted. He added that the possibility that some mail relating to the firings might have been deleted “can’t be ruled out”.
Martin Baldock, operations director at Kroll Ontrack Legal Technologies, said IT managers at UK organisations could learn from the White House’s experience. Businesses “certainly should have a policy” governing the use of employee’s own email accounts – including webmail services such as Microsoft’s Hotmail – at work. “The question mark is over people using the ‘wring’ system for government business. That’s a policy thing rather than an IT thing.”
He added: “There is a back-up issue here about the way deleted emails are deleted.” In many organisations, “back-ups are done more for business continuity than for an investigation in the future”, he said. “But in very sensitive or regulated industries, many of our clients are now looking at proper ways of archiving and indexing emails. There are modern systems that will extract from Outlook or whatever, archive it, store it and allow you to retrieve it instantly.”
Such systems were safer than relying on archives made by employees with their email clients, because they could be configured to capture all email, even when it was deleted on local hard drives.