The White House has three days to explain why it shouldn't be required to copy its computer hard drives to ensure no further e-mails are lost, a federal judge ordered Tuesday.
Already, e-mails between March and October 2003 appear to have been lost, Judge John M. Facciola noted, because they were improperly archived and no backup copies exist. That period includes the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
E-mails by White House staff are considered part of the nation's historical record, and federal law requires they be preserved. The White House has admitted that potentially millions of e-mails from the past eight years have been erased, although it has provided conflicting accounts on how many may still exist on backup tapes, though it has since said it believes "all or substantially all" e-mails are available on backup tapes.
The order, issued Tuesday morning by a federal magistrate judge in Washington, D.C., comes in a case brought against the Bush administration by the National Security Archive, a nonpartisan group affiliated with George Washington University.
The group filed suit in September 2007, seeking to force the White House to restore missing e-mails and institute an adequate archiving system.
Judge Facciola rejected as "draconian" a proposal by the Archive that would have forced the White House to quarantine every computer workstation it had. Instead, Facciola proposed the White House make a "forensic copy" of all preservable data on every computer that could have been used by an employee between 2003 and 2005, the period in question.
Observing that even that step is "not without its costs," Facciola gave the White House until close of business Friday to argue why it should not be required to make such copies.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the White House "fully intends to comply" with the order, which is currently being reviewed.
This report has been updated.