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The Next Bush Scandal?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 10, 2007; 1:34 PM

The slowly-unfolding disclosure that some White House aides use non-government e-mail servers to conduct official business may soon be reaching scandal proportions.

As John D. McKinnon writes in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The widespread use of private email accounts by some top White House officials is sparking a congressional probe into the practice and whether it violates a post-Nixon law requiring that White House deliberations be documented.

"A top Democratic lawmaker says outside email accounts were used in an attempt to avoid scrutiny; the White House says their purpose was to avoid using government resources for political activities, although they were used to discuss the firing of U.S. attorneys."

Most of the e-mail accounts at issue are on Republican National Committee servers. For instance: "Susan Ralston, until recently presidential adviser Karl Rove's assistant at the White House, appears to have used at least four outside email accounts: a 'gwb' domain account, a 'georgewbush.com' account, and an 'rnchq.org' account -- all run by the RNC -- plus an AOL account. She once emailed two associates of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, 'I now have an RNC blackberry which you can use to e-mail me at any time. No security issues like my WH email.' . . .

"'At the end of the day, it looks like they were trying to avoid the records act . . . by operating official business off the official systems,' said John Podesta, who worked in the White House for the entire Clinton presidency, including a stint as chief of staff. . . .

"White House officials dispute the criticisms, saying the purpose of the RNC accounts has been to avoid running afoul of another federal law, the Hatch Act. It prohibits many federal officials from engaging in political activity on government time or with government resources."

Will these e-mails ever see the light of day? McKinnon writes: "The White House and RNC said the RNC is preserving the emails generated by White House officials on the RNC's computers, and that they are exempt from the RNC's normal policy of erasing emails after 30 days."

And yet, he notes: "When Congress adopted the Presidential Records Act, it didn't give any agency much authority to police the White House's handling of official records. . . . Congress also has had trouble obtaining many internal records from the political parties in the past."

Here's Bob Franken discussing the story on CNN yesterday: "It's about the Presidential Records Act, which requires the preservation of all official records of and about the president. . . .

"There are also messages to and from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now in prison. At one point, according to investigators, after an e-mail was apparently sent by accident to the White House account of an assistant to Karl Rove, Abramoff fired another one saying, 'Damn it, it was not supposed to go in the White House system.' . . .

"Neither administration aides nor Republican Party officials would agree to be interviewed on camera after repeated requests from CNN. But a White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, in a statement, called the use of different computers to have the separate e-mail account for political activities, 'appropriate, modeled after the historical practice of previous administrations.'"

The refusal of the White House press office to directly address specific questions about these e-mails leaves these issues unresolved:

1) Did the e-mails violate internal White House policy or the Presidential Records Act?

2) Were Rove and the others aware that official business should be conducted on official servers?

3) Were they intentionally trying to keep their e-mails off the official system and therefore permanently out of public view, or was it just a matter of convenience?

4) How does this White House distinguish official business from political business -- if at all?

Some Background

I first wrote about this issue in my March 14 column: "It makes some sense that White House officials might have and use such accounts when they conduct party business, rather than White House business. But the distinction between party and government business seems to have been forgotten here -- which I guess is exactly the point."

I also submitted four questions to the White House press office about the matter. Among them: "Does White House policy allow White House staffers to use non-White House e-mail addresses for official White House business? Does it prohibit it? What is the policy?"

In my March 15 column, I added four more questions suggested by readers. Among them: "Does non-White House e-mail fulfill security requirements for White House communications?" (Despite my repeated attempts since then, there's been no answer to any of the questions.)

I also noted that Steve Bell, the chief of staff to Sen. Pete Domenici, sent an e-mail about the senator's preferred replacement for fired U.S. attorney David Iglesias to three people -- including one "kr@georgewbush.com". Bell wouldn't talk to me about that on the record.

In my March 16 column, I linked to a letter from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) asking the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to investigate.

In my March 23 column, I quoted extensively from the mainstream media's first significant stab at the story: a National Journal article by Alexis Simendinger (subscription required).

"White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove may have forfeited potential claims of executive privilege over the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys-- if he communicated about the latter outside the White House e-mail system, using his Republican National Committee e-mail account or RNC equipment," Simendinger wrote.

And, she noted: "According to one former White House official familiar with Rove's work habits, the president's top political adviser does 'about 95 percent' of his e-mailing using his RNC-based account."

In my March 26 column, I linked to the relevant Abramoff e-mails and published excerpts of Simendinger's fruitless attempt to get some answers from spokesman Tony Snow at a March 23 press briefing.

In my March 28 column, I noted an item by Paul Bedard for U.S. News, to the effect that some Bush aides were responding to the news reports by scurrying to put more of their communications (not less) on non-official servers.

I excerpted from spokeswoman Dana Perino's successful ducking of the issue at a March 27 press briefing. And I linked to a letter from CREW pointing out that a Clinton-era White House staff manual explicitly required aides to use White House e-mail accounts for "all official communications."

In my April 5 column, I linked to R. Jeffrey Smith's story in The Washington Post, which reported that "House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) told the Republican National Committee yesterday to turn over copies of any electronic messages from White House officials that relate to the use of federal resources or agencies for partisan Republican purposes." (Here is the Waxman letter.)

And in yesterday's column, I linked to the second significant major-media story on this important issue -- fully four weeks after it first came to light -- this one by Tom Hamburger in the Los Angeles Times describing the genesis of a "back-channel e-mail and paging system, paid for and maintained by the RNC" that is now "creating new embarrassment and legal headaches for the White House, the Republican Party and Rove's once-vaunted White House operation."

Slowly but surely, the storm is gathering.

Attorney Watch

Richard A. Serrano writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicating they think there is more to learn about the firings of eight federal prosecutors last year, asked Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales on Monday to turn over additional documents on the terminations and threatened to issue subpoenas if the materials were not forthcoming.

"Specifically, the four senators want the internal rankings that the Justice Department made of all 93 U.S. attorneys over the years, as well as employment charts that Monica M. Goodling, a top aide to Gonzales, provided to Justice officials as they decided which prosecutors to fire."

Adam Cohen writes about executive privilege in a New York Times opinion piece. "[T]he Bush administration is threatening to invoke executive privilege to hobble Congress's investigation into the purge of United States attorneys. President Bush has said that Karl Rove, his closest adviser, and Harriet Miers, his former White House counsel, among others, do not have to comply with Congressional subpoenas because 'the president relies upon his staff to give him candid advice.'"

But, Cohen concludes: "Congress has a right, and an obligation, to examine all of the evidence, which increasingly suggests that the Bush administration fired eight or more federal prosecutors either because they were investigating Republicans, or refusing to bring baseless charges against Democrats. The Supreme Court's ruling in the Watergate tapes case, and other legal and historical precedents, make it clear that executive privilege should not keep Congress from getting the testimony it needs.....

"If Mr. Bush battles Congress in court, he will be fighting not only legal precedents, but the nation's collective memory about the last president to take this stand."

Blogger Josh Marshall, who was the first to see a scandal in the firings of the attorneys, now writes that "another chapter of the story is unfolding."

He writes that there "are cases in which sitting US Attorneys resigned under questionable circumstances in late 2005 or early 2006 and then were replaced by young DOJ staffers who Attorney General Gonzales appointed using the Patriot Act provision. The names of at least some of these resigned USA were showing up on a list of potential firees at Main Justice. And there's also at least some overlap with the states from which GOP officials were sending complaints about 'voter fraud' to Karl Rove.

"Rove, of course, wanted results. And it's no accident that almost all of the states in question were key swing states.

"The details are murky. And we're still looking in to several of these cases. But it looks more and more like the 8 Attorney Purge was just a new chapter in a longer running story -- and the hold the White House political office had over the Justice Department through President Bush's footman Alberto Gonzales is and was at the center of every part of the story."

Immigration Watch

Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush unveiled the basics of his latest immigration proposal Monday, a mix of tougher border enforcement and a complicated path to legal status for illegal immigrants that the White House hopes can break the congressional deadlock over the thorny issue. . . .

"Whether he can help steer passage of a bill this year looms as a major test of his clout in Congress in the latter half of his last term.

"Although the president was vague about the details of his new effort, proposals being discussed among White House officials and GOP lawmakers seem designed to bring recalcitrant Republicans aboard.

"For instance, one plan would require illegal immigrants wishing to remain in the United States to return to their country of origin first and pay a $10,000 fine to obtain a three-year work visa. The visas would be renewable, at a cost of $3,500."

She also notes: "One new wrinkle under consideration by the White House would rewrite the law on legal immigration. Currently, family relations play a key role in obtaining visas that grant immigrants legal residency. Under proposals being discussed by Republicans in the Senate, business needs would take higher priority than family connections."

Here's the text of his speech.

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "The Bush administration set off alarms among immigrants' rights groups in recent weeks when an internal White House presentation outlining a set of stricter immigration principles was leaked to the media.

"Those principles would make it more difficult for families of immigrants to move to the United States, would subject undocumented immigrants to fees and fines of $20,000 or more and require that they leave the country before they could reenter and gain legal status.

"The White House has said that the presentation simply reflected ideas on the table rather than immoveable principles. But supporters of a get-tough approach to immigration reform say the administration seems to be backing away from one of its key positions: offering undocumented immigrants already in the United States a chance to become citizens.

"Representative John Shadegg, an Arizona Republican who joined Bush in Yuma yesterday, said he believes the president 'is moving in [the] direction' of denying citizenship to those who came to the country illegally. . . .

"But the president's rhetoric seemed to point in a different direction, one more friendly to the Democrats, and the shifting messages from the White House has some observers wondering about Bush's immigration plan."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes that if the law's "penalties are so onerous that they keep illegal immigrants in the shadows, they're counterproductive. . . .

"The danger for Bush, then as now, is to concede too much to anti-immigrant partisans at the (re)start of this debate."

Labor movement leaders John J. Sweeney and Pablo Alvarado write in an Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Corporate America has made an expanded guest worker program the cornerstone of its preferred brand of immigration reform, and no wonder: It will assure a steady flow of cheap labor from essentially indentured workers too afraid of being deported to protest substandard wages, chiseled benefits and unsafe working conditions."

Up is Down; Down is Up

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Monday that tougher enforcement and a new fence at the Mexican border had sharply reduced the influx of illegal immigrants, and he pressed Congress to pass a sweeping revision of the nation's immigration laws. . . .

"In the last six months, the White House said, Border Patrol reports showed that apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the Mexican border fell by 30 percent, to 418,184, from 594,142 in the comparable period a year earlier. In the Yuma sector, which spans parts of Arizona and California, apprehensions fell by 68 percent, to 25,217, from 79,131 in the comparable period a year earlier. . . .

"The White House interprets the decline in apprehensions as a sign that the tighter security is working.

"'When you're apprehending fewer people, it means fewer are trying to come across,' Mr. Bush said. 'And fewer are trying to come across because we're deterring people from attempting illegal border crossings in the first place.'"

Pear notes that declining numbers are not necessarily that significant: "[I]mmigration experts note that apprehension figures swing erratically over the years. The numbers can be driven by a variety of factors aside from enforcement, including weather, Latin American economics and decisions by illegal immigrants to make fewer trips back and forth between the United States and Mexico."

But Pear misses a key point: Wouldn't Bush have said it was a good thing if apprehensions had been up, too?

As it happens, Ryan Powers of the Think Progress Web site found evidence that Bush has done precisely that in the past.

In a November 2005 speech in Tucson, Ariz., Bush had this to say: "Our actions to integrate manpower, technology and infrastructure are getting results. And one of the best examples of success is the Arizona Border Control Initiative, which the government launched in 2004. In the first year of this initiative -- now, listen to this, listen how hard these people are working here -- agents in Arizona apprehended nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants, a 42-percent increase over the previous year."

Finally, there may not be much to celebrate in the decrease. Kevin R. Johnson, a law professor at University of California-Davis and co-editor of ImmigrationProf Blog tells me that one effect of the kind of fortification around Yuma that Bush was praising yesterday is that it "basically reroutes people to places where there aren't fences, in the desert, where they're more likely to die."

Niger and Uranium

UPI reports: "A U.S. House of Representatives committee renewed calls for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to testify on claims Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Niger. . . .

"House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman sent a second letter on Monday reiterating the request that Rice appear before the committee on April 18."

From Waxman's letter: "One of the issues the Committee is examining why the President asserted in his State of the Union address in 2003 that Iraq sought uranium from Niger. In my March 12 letter, I requested information about what you knew about this assertion and how it ended up in the State of the Union address. I asked you to answer specific questions raised in a June 10, 2003, letter and a July 29, 2003, 1etter, both of which I enclosed. These questions included: (1) whether you had any knowledge that would explain why President Bush cited forged evidence about Iraq's efforts to procure uranium from Niger in the State of the Union address; (2) whether you knew before the State of the Union address of the doubts raised by the CIA and the State Department about the veracity of the Niger claim; (3) whether there was a factual basis for your reference in a January 23, 2003, op-ed to "Iraq's efforts to get uranium from abroad"; and (4) whether you took appropriate steps to investigate how the Niger claim ended up in the State of the Union address after it was revealed to be fraudulent."

Rice was national security adviser at the time.

Fourth Anniversary (Not) Observed

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "As Iraq observed the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein yesterday, the lead item on the White House Web site, under the heading 'LATEST NEWS,' was a photograph of Clifford the Big Red Dog at the annual Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn.

"The president marked the anniversary by going to Arizona to give a speech -- about immigration. In his 24-minute address, he didn't so much as mention Iraq. The vice president, secretary of state and secretary of defense had no public events on their schedules yesterday."

Meanwhile, Edward Wong writes in the New York Times: "Tens of thousands of protesters loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, took to the streets of the holy city of Najaf on Monday in an extraordinarily disciplined rally to demand an end to the American military presence in Iraq, burning American flags and chanting 'Death to America!'"

AFP reports: "The White House on Monday downplayed anti-US rallies in Iraq called by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and said such demonstrations were a hopeful sign of freedom.

"'While we have much more progress ahead of us -- the United States, the coalition and Iraqis have much more to do -- this is a country that has come a long way from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein,' said spokesman Gordon Johndroe."

Or, as Editor and Publisher put it: "A huge anti-American protest swept two cities in Iraq today, but White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters this only underscores how much 'progress' the U.S. is making in that country."

And Peter Spiegel and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Pentagon will send four National Guard brigades to Iraq and may extend the tours of five active-duty Army brigades by as much as four months as it strains to find troops to sustain the buildup in Baghdad through the end of the year."

Message From the Grave

David Corn blogs for the Nation: "From the grave, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the godmother of the neoconservative movement, speaks: the Iraq war was something of a mistake."

In a new book, Kirkpatrick reports "that she had 'grave reservations' about George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. She notes that at the time, 'I was privately critical of the Bush administration's argument for the use of military force for preemptive self-defense.' She does not say where and to whom she voiced her misgivings--if she did. Most strikingly, she argues that the war--with respect to bringing democracy to Iraqis--did more harm than good."

Poll Watch

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "Public approval for Congress is at its highest level in a year as Democrats mark 100 days in power and step up their confrontation with President Bush over his handling of the Iraq War, the issue that overshadows all others. . . .

"Overall approval for Congress is 40 percent. The survey shows Bush's approval ratings remain in the mid-30 percent range, that a striking 39 percent strongly disapproves his handling of foreign policy and the war on terror, and that the public has scant hopes that the president and Congress can work together to solve the country's problems."

Google Bomb Explodes Again

Mike Sachoff writes for Webpronews: "Google may have fixed a link bomb in January that had President George W. Bush listed as the top results for 'failure' or 'miserable failure', but now due to a White House oversight the President is once again ranked number one for the search term ' failure' on Google

"The White House had seemingly put the Google bombing behind them. So how did the President once again yield a number one ranking for the search term 'failure?'

"Danny Sullivan explains, 'The White House used the word "failure" on Bush's page, which resulted in the page becoming relevant for the query again.' . . .

"Here is the exact text from the President's radio address that has him associated with the term failure. 'The bottom line is that Congress's failure to fund our troops will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines.'"

Rove's Next Gig?

Benjamin H. Johnson, a history professor at Southern Methodist University and author of the Bush Library Blog, writes: "Last weekend while at the ever-scintillating meeting of the Organization of American Historians I ran into a few friends in administrative positions at research libraries. The Bush people, they told me, have been scoping out research facilities, taking a look at how institutions try to set themselves up to house both archival records open to a wide range of researchers and provide a productive working environment for fellows. The person leading this effort was nobody other than Karl Rove. . . . Rove is personally going around to these libraries, meeting with their directors and checking out their facilities. According to one colleague, he seems to know exactly what the square footage of the building will be and where it will be located on campus. . . .

"An important backdrop to all of this is the Bush administration's continued political collapse, which amazingly enough keeps getting worse. My sense is that this collapse makes the library-museum-institute complex all the more valuable to the Bush people: especially after the crushing defeat in the last Congressional election, the complex may be all that they will have left to leverage to secure their place in history. I wouldn't be surprised if Rove's days as a top political strategist are over, so perhaps a position as head of the Bush Institute would be attractive to him in a way that it wouldn't have been earlier in his career."

Very Appreciative

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service: "President Bush appreciates lots of things and people. We know that because he frequently says so in his speeches. Today, during an immigration policy speech in Yuma, Arizona, we learned of 19 more things and people appreciated by the appreciater-in-chief.

"The number of appreciations seems to have appreciated by an appreciable amount."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. I'd appreciate you stopping by.

Duck for President

Natasha T. Metzler writes for the Associated Press about the White House Easter Egg Roll, at which "the first lady sat in one of the area's designated reading nooks and read 'Duck for President,' by Doreen Cronin. It's a story of a duck who gets sick of farm chores and decides to run for office -- first for head of the farm, then governor and, finally, president. In the end he decides running the country is too much work and goes back to the farm."

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