WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A unit of the White House that was accused of misplacing perhaps millions of office e-mails does not have to make its records public, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The White House Office of Administration is not bound by the Freedom of Information Act, an appeals panel says.
The decision was a victory for the Bush administration, which sought to shield its internal communications.
The three-judge panel in Washington concluded the Office of Administration is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act over disclosure of its documents because "it performs only operational and administrative tasks in support of the President and his staff and therefore, under our precedent, lacks substantial and independent authority."
The latest opinion stems from a ongoing lawsuit by private groups over allegedly missing electronic messages, and allegations that the White House failed to properly monitor its internal communications among staff.
The issue has been a thorny legal and political one for former Bush officials, who in the administration's final days in January were transferring more than 300 million e-mail messages and 25,000 boxes of documents to the National Archives.
Those officials acknowledged in court papers they had discovered about 14 million e-mails that were previously unaccounted for, and hundreds of thousands more that were later recovered on backup tapes.
The time period in question includes the start of the Iraq War, as well as the investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity as a CIA operative. She is the wife of former diplomat Joseph Wilson, who publicly criticized the administration's justification for invading Iraq. The couple sued, claiming White House officials retaliated for Wilson's public stance by revealing her identity to reporters.
A new e-mail system was installed during President Bush's first term, but the hardware did not initially preserve the records for archiving, a problem officials said they did not discover until 2005. Officials revealed they had found about 3,500 pages of documents concerning problems with the internal e-mail system.
The White House had initially agreed to turn over the documents but asked that the scope and timetable be changed, arguing officials could not produce the material within the deadlines of the Freedom of Information Act. The main plaintiff, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) then sued, accusing Bush officials of trying to stall. They also said the Executive Branch had granted hundreds of similar FOIA requests for years.
A federal district court judge ruled against the private group last June. In Tuesday's decision, the appeals judges -- David Sentelle, Thomas Griffith and Raymond Randolph -- were all named by Republican presidents.
The Obama administration was not involved in this case but has backed the previous occupants of the White House in a separate lawsuit to recover any missing electronic messages.
CREW and other groups now have the option of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. Office of Administration (08-5188).