*We may never know

WE MAY NEVER KNOW…. The Bush gang’s penchant for secrecy is well known, but let’s not forget their goal of taking their secrets with them.

The required transfer in four weeks of all of the Bush White House’s electronic mail messages and documents to the National Archives has been imperiled by a combination of technical glitches, lawsuits and lagging computer forensic work, according to government officials, historians and lawyers.

Federal law requires outgoing White House officials to provide the Archives copies of their records, a cache estimated at more than 300 million messages and 25,000 boxes of documents depicting some of the most sensitive policymaking of the past eight years.

But archivists are uncertain whether the transfer will include all the electronic messages sent and received by the officials, because the administration began trying only in recent months to recover from White House backup tapes hundreds of thousands of e-mails that were reported missing from readily accessible files in 2005.

The risks that the transfer may be incomplete are also pointed up by a continuing legal battle between a coalition of historians and nonprofit groups over access to Vice President Cheney’s records. The coalition is contesting the administration’s assertion in federal court this month that he “alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records” and “how his records will be created, maintained, managed, and disposed,” without outside challenge or judicial review.

Eventual access to the documentary record of the Bush presidency has been eagerly anticipated by historians and journalists because the president and his aides generally have sought to shield from public disclosure many details of their deliberations and interactions with outside groups.

“We are worried,” said Arnita A. Jones, executive director of the American Historical Association, which sued the White House several years ago seeking wider access to presidential records than President Bush had said in a 2001 executive order that he wanted the government to provide. “There is a context that is not reassuring,” she said.

It’s not an issue that gets a lot of attention, but it matters a great deal. It’s not just a question of administration officials hiding wrongdoing and covering up misconduct, and it’s not just a matter of fulfilling the requirements of historical and archival records.

As Hilzoy explained the other day, it’s principally about preventing another fiasco in the future: “A crucial part of the record of how our government was systematically perverted will be lost, and we will not be able to learn from it how to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. We cannot let that happen. Too much depends on it.”

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.