(CNN) -- The White House has five business days to say whether its computer backup system is possibly storing millions of old e-mails that the Bush administration said were missing, a federal court ordered.
The National Security Archive says the White House has avoided answering questions about missing e-mails.
Tuesday's order, by a magistrate of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, comes as a part of a suit brought against the White House by the National Security Archive.
The archive alleges the e-mails were improperly deleted, violating laws requiring the preservation of government records.
"The White House has evaded answering questions about whether it permanently destroyed over 5 million e-mails about such issues as Hurricane Katrina, the firing of United States attorneys and the exposure of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent," said Meredith Fuchs, an attorney for the Security Archive.
"This order will force the Executive Office of the President to tell the public whether it really erased key records of the nation's history or whether it has made any effort to preserve the information."
The archive is an independent, nongovernment organization based at George Washington University.
The order gives the White House five business days to submit a sworn declaration answering questions such as, "Do the backups contain the e-mails said to be missing?"
White House spokesman Tony Fratto declined to comment on the order while the administration reviews it.
Allegations of missing White House e-mails first surfaced during special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the Valerie Plame Wilson ordeal. Missing e-mails later became a key issue in a congressional probe into the administration's firing of nine federal prosecutors.
The White House has conceded that numerous e-mails may not have been automatically archived because of technical problems. However, citing executive privilege, it vigorously contends the White House Office of Administration is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which provides for public access to federal government records. The administration is seeking to have the case dismissed.
In his order, Magistrate John Facciola wrote that if the backups turn out not to include the sought-after e-mails, then the Security Archive could try to retrieve them from individual computers or other forensic means.
"That would not come without a fight, however," Facciola wrote. Furthermore, Facciola has said that if it turns out the Executive Office of the President has not complied with a court order issued in November to preserve backup tapes, that failure may be punishable by contempt. E-mail to a friend