Political Firestorm Erupts over Missing White House E-Mails

It was revealed this week that some 22 current Bush administration officials have separate White House and Republican National Committee (RNC) e-mail accounts that were designed to ensure that White House staff did not use government equipment for political purposes in violation of the Hatch Act. However, it is being alleged by congressional Democrats that these political e-mail accounts were improperly used to engage in official government business without leaving an electronic trail behind in an attempt to circumvent the Presidential Records Act. Of particular interest are e-mails sent through these non-governmental accounts concerning the firing of eight U.S. attorneys that is currently under scrutiny by Congress.

The Democrats are particularly concerned that senior White House advisor Karl Rove had the ability, prior to 2005, to delete his e-mails from the RNC server. On Friday, Rove’s attorney Robert Luskin denied that Rove intentionally sought to delete e-mails from the RNC computer system. RNC officials have said that they do not know to what extent e-mails prior to 2005 are retrievable. The RNC instituted new policies after 2005 to prevent such deletions.

On April 12, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) met with Rob Kelner, an attorney for the RNC. Following the briefing, the committee issued a statement that the meeting raised “serious concerns about the White House compliance with the Presidential Records Act.” Representative Waxman had previously sent a letter to RNC Chair Mark Duncan asking, “What agreements, if any, has the RNC entered into with the White House, the National Archives, or other government agencies regarding the e-mail accounts maintained by the RNC that have been used by White House officials?”

Senator Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) stated, “You can’t erase e-mails, not today. These e-mails have gone through too many servers. They can’t say they have been lost. That is akin to saying the dog ate my homework. It doesn’t work that way. Those e-mails are there, the White House just doesn’t want to produce them. It is similar to the famous 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes.”

In a press briefing, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that she had no indication that any laws had been broken. Later in the briefing she stated “Well, I will admit it, we screwed up and we are trying to fix it.” When asked if President Bush had an RNC e-mail account, she responded, “I don’t think so, no. The President says he doesn’t e-mail.”

Leahy and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Arlen Specter (R-PA) sent a letter to White House counsel Fred Fielding asking what was being done to investigate and remedy the situation. Leahy and Specter specifically cited an anonymous press statement given by a White House lawyer who advised White House staff that if they have a doubt whether an e-mail is political or official that they should use their political account, but also preserve a copy and send it to the counsel’s office for a determination whether the e-mail needs to be saved under the Presidential Records Act. The two Senators asked whether the policy is to apply prospectively or whether staff is now being instructed to forward past e-mails for review.

The Senate and House Judiciary Committees have authorized subpoenas to the Justice Department and the White House for documents related to the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys. However, the subpoenas have not yet been served.