WASHINGTON -- A report by the federal archivists who collected thousands of White House computer tapes in the waning hours of the Bush administration indicates that several sets of the tapes, ordered preserved by a federal judge, have been lost.
A Feb. 16 memo from the National Archives panel that gathered the material said that "many dates are missing" from the piles of computer tapes hastily collected in the final 18
hours of the administration.
A lawyer involved in the case that led to the judge's order said it appeared that "several sets of tapes had been erased, perhaps inadvertently."
The lawyer, Cheryl Walter, also said that some hard disk drives removed from White House computers when the Bush administration left office may have been damaged by sloppy handling in the transfer.
She said the drives, which also contain data, were "thrown in a box with no padding" as the archivists hurried to gather the material before the Clinton administration took over on Jan. 20.
All told, 4,000 to 5,000 tapes from the Bush and Reagan administrations were collected; such tapes were made every night. The recent losses, reported yesterday in the Washington Post, might amount to a few days' worth, Ms. Walter said. The loss is in addition to about two weeks of Reagan administration tapes that were found to be missing or erased.
The order to preserve the tapes came in response to a long-runningsuit by Ms. Walter's group, the National Security Archive, a private organization that collects government documents, and several public-interest groups seeking to preserve the tapes.
Computer messages provided important evidence in the Iran-contra trials of Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter, a national security adviser in the Reagan administration.
The White House tapes were collected in the final hours of the Bush administration in accordance with an unusual agreement between the national archivist at the time, Don W. Wilson, and President George Bush giving "exclusive legal control over all presidential information" to Mr. Bush.
The memo from the archives panel describes in dry detail the frustrations its members faced in Mr. Bush's last hours in office as they hurriedly collected years' worth of classified White House communications, even as President Clinton was making his way up Pennsylvania Avenue after his swearing-in.