White House, you've got mail


When Bill Clinton and his staffers vacate the White House in January, they'll leave behind a historic mess: eight years' worth of memos, snapshots and bureaucratic bric-a-brac that must be preserved for posterity by the National Archives, the government's official record keeper.

And, oh yes, there's also the little matter of 40 million e-mail messages.

While the Clinton administration isn't the first to have electronic mail, it's the first to amass so much of it.

Recorded on thousands of magnetic computer tapes, the messages will constitute the largest single deposit of digital records in the history of the National Archives.

They could be a gold mine for historians. Dashed off by nearly 2,000 White House employees, the e-mails promise the most candid chronicle of day-to-day life inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. since Richard M. Nixon's Oval Office tape recorder.

"Historians live by documents," says Stanley Kutler, presidential biographer and author of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes."

"I see e-mail as a tremendous boon to historians trying to reconstruct a record."

But they've become a royal headache for government archivists, who are struggling to figure out how to store and exhibit e-mail and other important electronic records for centuries to come.

It's a problem confronting librarians and archivists everywhere, as more of the nation's cultural artifacts go digital.

The State Department will soon start shipping a million electronic diplomatic messages a year to the Archives. The Defense Department is digitizing its enormous storehouse of personnel records, which it plans to dump on archivists in 2002.

"We're up against the limits of science right now in trying to deal with what is actually a basic archival problem: How do you manage a collection of hundreds of millions of things over time?" says Ken Thibodeau, an electronic records expert at the National Archives.

To solve the digital dilemma, the National Archives has embarked on an ambitious $130 million project to build a next-generation electronic records archive to make these documents as easy to store and retrieve as paper ones.

Historians and political junkies say it can't arrive soon enough.

Already 6,000 computer tapes from the Reagan and Bush administrations sit in a chilled vault on the agency's College Park campus. The tapes are thought to contain millions of e-mails, the majority of which have never been seen by outsiders and won't be until the new electronic archives is finished.

What's contained on them is anybody's guess. But judging by the contents of the few messages that have surfaced over the years, the tapes should make interesting reading someday.

In the early 1980s, the National Security Archive, a nonprofit Washington group that promotes public access to government documents, used public records laws to obtain nearly 4,000 White House e-mail messages.

It printed the best of them in the book, "White House E-mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan/Bush White House Tried to Destroy."

"White House e-mails are phenomenal," says Tom Blanton, National Security Archive executive director. "They're so urgent and immediate and chatty and informational. And everyone who wrote these e-mail believed they would never see the light of day."

Blanton says many of the e-mails contained "wonderful little candid comments" by staffers about each other, well-known Washington politicians and visiting foreign dignitaries. They revealed internal turf battles, horseplay and office romances.

"They didn't make any effort to hide anything," says Thibodeau.

While reviewing samples from the Reagan and Bush tapes once, Thibodeau was surprised to discover an electronic love letter between a White House functionary and "someone fairly prominent" in the Bush administration.

He also saw a lot of daily calendars, recipe swapping and other trivia. Because it encouraged such candor, the White House e-mail computer system became a favorite target of lawyers and congressional investigators soon after it was installed in 1982.

It was e-mail between former National Security Council staffer Oliver North and his superiors that helped congressional investigators flesh out the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan era. And electronic kvetching between one-time White House secretary Linda Tripp and intern Monica Lewinsky bolstered the impeachment case against Bill Clinton.

Perhaps recognizing the trouble e-mail might cause, the three most recent presidents have tried to prevent their administration's e-mail from leaving the White House. (It's unclear whether Reagan, Bush or Clinton ever sent any e-mail, but Clinton receives it at both his official e-mail address and a secret one.)

The Reagan administration planned to quietly destroy its electronic records, while Bush struck a secret deal on his last day in office for "exclusive legal control" of his tapes.

Only a series of legal battles against the government in the late 1980s by a coalition of public interest groups saved the tapes. The Clinton administration tried to have these court decisions reversed and failed.

The upshot: it is the first to be definitively bound to preserve its electronic correspondence.

Now it's up to the National Archives to make sure that these electronic documents hold up as long as the original Constitution or Bill of Rights.

It's not easy. Paper documents degrade over centuries. Electronic documents are far more fragile, dependent on ever-changing technologies. The fear is that today's digital information could accidentally become trapped on obsolete technology and be lost to scholars.

E-mail is especially tricky because it contains not just text but embedded spreadsheets, photos, music, even movies, all of which require their own proprietary software to display.

Archivists surmise they'll need a system that can cope with more than 3,000 software formats to handle all the digital records they're expecting to get.

"The tricky part for the National Archives is they have to be able to present everything in the collection 100 years in the future when all this technology has changed," says Reagan Moore, a computer scientist at the San Diego Supercomputing Center, which has teamed up with the National Archives to develop its new electronic records archive.

The other problem facing archivists is volume. The computer system currently used to copy data onto archive-quality tape can process just 70,000 computer files a year. At that pace, officials say, the magnetic tapes containing 40 million Clinton administration e-mails would begin to deteriorate before technicians finish copying them.

But a solution might be in sight.

Last fall, researchers at the San Diego Supercomputing Center showed off a prototype of the Archives' new records system that can handle everything from e-mails to patent application files to digital images, displaying them in their original form no matter what kind of software they originally required.

The prototype also solved the speed problem, processing an average of 500,000 e-mails a day. The National Archives is hoping to have the new system in place by 2005.

When it's done, it will allow researchers to scan millions of presidential e-mail and other electronic records in seconds by typing in keywords such as "Tripp" or "Whitewater," just as they can electronically search through their own computer files today.

Part of the collection might even be available over the Internet, eliminating the need for scholars to travel to out-of-the-way libraries to do their research.

But even when the National Archives' new electronic records system is ready, historians still might have to be patient.

All presidential papers, including electronic ones, fall under the Presidential Records Act, which allows the commander in chief to keep his most sensitive materials under wraps for up to 12 years after he leaves office.

By that formula, historians won't have access to the juiciest of the Clinton era e-mail until January 2013.

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