The Obama administration has found 22 million e-mails that went missing in the White House of President George W. Bush. The administration says it will restore e-mails from 94 specific days, including some periods of drama in the Bush White House.
The 94 days fall between January 2003 and April 2005. The e-mails are covered in an agreement negotiated by the Obama White House with two watchdog groups that had sued the Bush White House in 2007.
White House Special Counsel Norm Eisen says it's a good government issue. "This is part of the plan that we have in the Obama administration really to set a new benchmark for openness and transparency in government," he said.
The process of archiving e-mails is important for preserving presidential records. Some of the e-mails are likely to hold inside details of bitter partisan battles.
The two groups in the deal with the White House are the National Security Archive at George Washington University and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, known as CREW.
The agreement let them pick out about a month's worth of days from which e-mails will be recovered. They chose days when the Bush White House said it archived unusually small numbers of e-mails even though big things were happening.
For instance, on those days: Senate Democrats blocked three judicial nominees, the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks got access to Oval Office briefing documents, and the Justice Department told the White House to preserve documents for a criminal probe of the leak of CIA covert officer Valerie Plame's identity.
Before anyone even asked for the e-mails, the White House was told by its technicians that the e-mail archiving system was broken. It didn't tell anyone, and it didn't rush to fix things.
In 2007, CREW got a tip and blew the whistle. Democrats in Congress were then chasing White House e-mails in yet another controversy: the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
The White House denied at first that any e-mails were missing, but then it said some might be lost.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy in 2007 said, "That's like saying the dog ate my homework. Those e-mails are there. They just don't want to produce them."
The following day, White House press secretary Dana Perino tried to explain: "I'm not saying that anyone said that they were missing. The question is, is there a potential that some could have been lost? And yes, there is a potential that some could have been lost, but we don't have a definition in terms of that universe or an answer specifically on that."
There's still no specific answer.
Meredith Fuchs, counsel at the National Security Archive, says some offices in the Bush White House seemed to have a bigger e-mail problem than others.
"We were shown some data that suggested there might've been a few hundred additional ones found after the restoration, up to several thousand found after the restoration."
And even when the restoration is complete, Fuchs says, the results will still be iffy.
"We might never really know that we've restored everything. We might never know whether anyone intentionally deleted anything. And we might never know whether we've filled in all the gaps."
The process will be painfully slow. The e-mails are all jumbled together, and it could take a few years to sort them out.
Even then, former President Bush could contest disclosures.
Even harder to grasp: The 94 days to be examined produced a tiny fraction of potentially recoverable e-mails. The total is thought to surpass 22 million. Recovering everything would cost too much.
CREW's director Melanie Sloan says 94 days are better than nothing. "Think about how interested we are in understanding, just today, what happened in the Vietnam war, and how important it is to us to understand how the decisions that were being made and how they reflect on our current thinking."