And that’s a big problem. We have been pushing for legislative changes, amendments to both the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act. There has been legislation that has been proposed—and that I think is getting some renewed interest—that would require the Archives to certify that the White House system meets requirements for presidential records.

But the archivist would have no ability to compel the White House to do anything. Congress has been really afraid of the constitutional issue lurking in the background: if you have legislation that directly limits or controls how a president manages his or her presidential records, that this is going to run afoul of the constitution.

The argument I make in response to that is that I think that if all you are doing in legislation is requiring that the system have certain functions consistent with archival practice, I don’t think that’s unconstitutional.

Why did this problem happen? It seems hard to believe that they preferred Microsoft Exchange so much that it was worth scrapping the Clinton administration’s system [ARMS, the Automatic Records Managements System] that worked with Lotus Notes.

Based on my review of the documents, I think they had a patent disregard for their record-keeping obligations. It just wasn’t a priority for them. Clearly the technical people within the White House understood that practices they were pursuing were not in compliance with their legal obligations, and kept telling them that.

It’s understandable that they don’t want to continue ARMS, because Lotus Notes is not the preferred system for many people and organizations. I don’t think there’s anything alarming about that. They try to tinker with ARMS to see if it can preserve electronic records created in Microsoft Exchange. And they can’t get it to work.

So their people tell them you really can’t go through with this migration if you don’t have a system in place, and they ignore it. And then they come up with a new system and they scrap that.

That’s the ECRMS [Electronic Communications Records Management System].

To me, one of the most troubling things they did was their very, very, last minute decision to scrap the ECRMS after they had spent millions of dollars and years in developing it, and for reasons that just aren’t credible. Even the Archives did not accept them as credible.

What was their explanation?

Well, part of it was that it didn’t separate federal and presidential records, completely ignoring the fact that was a decision they had made early on.

But was that the right decision?

No. I think they are required to, and NARA would certainly say they are required to. If you don’t keep them separate, I don’t see how you can comply with your legal obligations for the two different kinds of records.

So when they made this incorrect decision, by the time it was 2007 and ECRMS was ready to go up, in your view it was too late to worry about it even if it was a bad decision?

But I don’t know what it would have taken to correct that. What I can’t figure out by looking at the documents was that right up until the moment they scrapped it, they were going ahead, full steam. The documentation we did get did not really offer a coherent explanation that lots of people would agree and say “That makes sense, they should have abandoned it.”

Now what my source had told me—and not surprisingly I didn’t see any confirmation of this in the documents—was what troubled people was its search capabilities, that it could do a Google-like search. As it was described to me, there was a briefing to describe how ECRMS would work, and the White House Counsel was present, and others, and the sense that this person got was that when they saw how effective it was in searching, coincidentally that was when the decision was made not to pursue it. So this person presumed from that, that that was a motivation. Obviously that’s a much more sinister explanation.

Bottom line, what your source suggested was the problem with ECRMS was that it would have worked too well.

The other thing they said was that it wasn’t going to be ready in time for a presidential transition. And NARA didn’t agree with that either. So they held out for another system that never got implemented by the time they left office.

What didn’t you get access to?

The body of documents that we did not get access to—and never will, I’m sure—is whatever communications there were with White House counsel’s office. The documents support that they were definitely involved and kept abreast of what was going on.

They would have to be—the counsel would have to know how they were meeting their records requirements.

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