WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has been hit with a last-minute court order to preserve electronic messages, the result of long problems with the White House's e-mail system.
The preservation order comes amid fears by two private groups that the White House has failed to take the necessary steps to deal with millions of e-mails that apparently are missing.
The issue first surfaced three years ago during the investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.
Wednesday's order by U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy directs the Executive Office of the President to issue a notice to employees to surrender any e-mails from March 2003 to October 2005. That period includes the start of the war in Iraq and the first two years of the probe into the leak by top White House aides of the identity of Valerie Plame, wife of Bush administration war critic Joe Wilson.
The government had argued for dismissal of the lawsuits by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive, but Kennedy rejected the request late last year.
At a separate court hearing Wednesday, the White House was admonished for not conducting a search of individual workstations as recommended by U.S. Magistrate Judge John Facciola in a report last April.
"You rolled the dice that you'd win and you lost," said Facciola. "I'm not delighted that you didn't do anything after April and that we're in the fix that we're in."
Justice Department lawyer Helen Hong told the judge that a notice was sent out to employees that e-mails should be preserved, but that those files had not yet been collected.
The White House said it has made great progress in accounting for e-mail messages. A spokesman declined further comment.
The administration is in the process of transferring over 300 million e-mail messages to the National Archives, said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, in addition to over 25,000 boxes of records.
Lawyers for the two groups want the White House to be required to produce a detailed inventory of what it has found and what will be transferred to the National Archives. So far, they say, the administration has refused to provide those details.
"Instead of coming clean and telling the public what they have been doing to solve the crisis, they refused to say anything," said Sheila Shadmand, who is representing the National Security Archive.
The judge's action extends a preservation order in the case from November 2007 that covers computer disaster recovery backup tapes. That would be one possible source for restoring missing e-mails.
Associated Press writer Jennifer C. Kerr contributed to this report.