We know a significant portion were. Was it one million, was it ten million? We just don’t know. The number may ultimately not be knowable, as unsatisfying as it is. If they were never captured in the first instance, we just don’t have a record of them anywhere.

Initially we focused so much on the number, because it was such a big number, and it suggested that the problem wasn’t just some small computer error. But as we dug into it and read thousands of pages of documents, what was more striking was that there were a series of missteps that the Bush White House made, and they were told over a period of many years that there were problems: “If you do X, there will be problems.” And they went ahead and did X. “If you do Y, there will be problems.” And they went ahead and did Y.

There’s a difference between an e-mail that’s unarchived and one that’s totally lost.

That’s right. But you could say for all practical purposes unarchived e-mails are lost—because if they don’t have it in their archive, it’s not accessible.

One of the things that I think the Bush White House used to try to defend their actions was to say “Well, we came in and we found all these additional e-mails.” But if they existed on backup tapes—and they aren’t all on backup tapes—well, they’re not accessible. They’re not part of the archive.

Through the limited restoration project that was done [by the Obama White House], we discovered that there most definitely were e-mails on backup tapes that were not part of the archive. Those are now part of the archive of e-mail records for the Bush White House.

Isn’t the National Archives required to present as full a record as they can? Is there any possibility that more e-mails could come to light once they’re in the Bush library?

We have a hole, and everybody knows we have a hole: there definitely are more e-mails on those backup tapes, and I would have hoped that NARA would view this as a sufficient priority that they’d push on their own. But so far they haven’t.

It’s a question of money. Our hope would be that we could convince Congress or someone to appropriate money for this. That’s why we wanted to make sure the Archives kept the backup tapes. And it’s still a hope, but the story doesn’t attract the same attention that it did. Everyone has moved on.

The fact of the matter is that if the Bush administration had done a full restoration from the backup tapes at the outset it would have ended up costing them less. And that was the recommendation that the Office of Administration had made. And it never happened.

The White House knew they had a big problem on their hands in 2005. How did you find out about it?

We found out about it because we had someone, essentially a whistleblower, come and tell us. It seemed sort of incredible: that the White House had discovered that many millions of e-mails were missing?

Then we had another source come to us and say the same thing. And at that point, it seemed reliable enough to put it out there. I will admit I had some trepidation. I was waiting for the White House to say this is totally wrong. And they didn’t!

When our first report went public, they admitted it. They might have quibbled with the numbers, and they certainly tried to make CREW and our motives an issue—as opposed to their own conduct—but there was no flat out denial. Then Waxman’s committee got involved and they got access to the actual documentation.

How else did information come out?

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.