WASHINGTON -- A federal district judge said yesterday that the Bush administration has indicated that it will begin destroying White House and National Security Council computer tapes today, in defiance of his orders.
Judge Charles R. Richey issued his second order in seven days yesterday demanding that the administration preserve the records, which investigators consider important in the Iran-contra affair.
But he said in an interview yesterday afternoon that court papers filed by the Bush administration, which leaves office Wednesday, led him to believe that it will begin erasing the material this morning despite his rulings.
In the order issued earlier in the day, the judge cited court papers filed by the administration, which assert that the government had planned today to "write over user data at each (( work station on all personal computer systems in order to create clean user space for the incoming administration NSC staff."
"This is just outrageous," Judge Richey, an appointee of President Richard M. Nixon who has been on the bench for more than 21 years, said after making an unsolicited call to a reporter. "It's really egregious."
Justice Department officials said they intended to seek a review immediately of Judge Richey's order by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, but they declined to comment about the judge's order or his concerns that the material would be detroyed.
White House officials declined to comment.
Justice Department lawyers argued that without the ability to purge their computer systems they would overload and shut down. The lawyers have also maintained that they want to purge the system to make it easier for the new administration to begin its work.
But Judge Richey angrily rejected those arguments in court. He said that the administration could not substantiate the claim that the system would overload and that he wants the administration to simply save electronic messages and backup computer tapes of other records.
"The public interest favors the preservation of historical material," the judge said.
The tapes are widely believed to contain many thousands of both trivial and highly significant messages between officials that could be of importance to historians, prosecutors and congressional investigators.
The most important evidence in the Iran-contra trials of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, came from electronic mail recordslike the ones Judge Richey wants preserved.
One of the five counts on which Mr. Poindexter was convicted involved the illegal destruction of computer records. The convictions of the two men were ultimately reversed by a federal appeals court for other reasons.
The case before Judge Richey has taken an important turn in recent weeks because the chief White House lawyer has told President Bush's aides that they could destroy telephone log and other personal records during the transition.
Congressional aides said such destruction would hinder their investigation of the State Department's search of Bill Clinton' passport files during the 1992 campaign, a search that some thought was meant to uncover politically damaging information about Mr. Clinton.
Some critics of the Bush administration said the move would also make it difficult to review the role of the White House in billions of dollars worth of loans to Iraq from the Atlanta branch of the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro. That case has raised questions about the administration's assistance of Iraq before the Persian Gulf war.
The computer tapes at issue before Judge Richey include those of three different computer systems at the White House and National Security Council.