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Countless White House E-Mails Deleted

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 12, 2007; 11:24 AM

Countless e-mails to and from many key White House staffers have been deleted -- lost to history and placed out of reach of congressional subpoenas -- due to a brazen violation of internal White House policy that was allowed to continue for more than six years, the White House acknowledged yesterday.

The leading culprit appears to be President Bush's enormously influential political adviser Karl Rove, who reportedly used his Republican National Committee-provided Blackberry and e-mail accounts for most of his electronic communication.

Until 2004, all e-mail on RNC accounts was routinely deleted after 30 days. Since 2004, White House staffers using those accounts have been able to save their e-mail indefinitely -- but have also been able to delete whatever they felt like deleting. By comparison, the White House e-mail system preserves absolutely everything forever, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.

The White House yesterday said it has no idea how many e-mails have been lost.

In an afternoon conference call with reporters, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel spread the blame all around. "White House policy did not give clear enough guidance," he said. "The oversight of that wasn't aggressive enough." And individual White House staffers "did not do a good enough job of following existing preservation policy -- or seeking guidance."

Said Stanzel: "I guess the bottom line is that our policy at the White House was not clear enough for employees."

But when I asked Stanzel to read out loud the White House e-mail policy, it seemed clear enough to me: "Federal law requires the preservation of electronic communications sent or received by White House staff," says the handbook that all staffers are given and expected to read and comply with.

"As a result, personnel working on behalf of the EOP [Executive Office of the President] are expected to only use government-provided e-mail services for all official communication."

The handbook further explains: "The official EOP e-mail system is designed to automatically comply with records management requirements."

And if that wasn't clear enough, the handbook notes -- as was the case in the Clinton administration -- that "commercial or free e-mail sites and chat rooms are blocked from the EOP network to help staff members ensure compliance and to prevent the circumvention of the records management requirements."

Stanzel refused to publicly release the relevant portions of the White House staff manual and denied my request to make public the transcript of the call, which lasted more than an hour but which -- due to Stanzel's refusal or inability to provide straight answers on many issues -- raised more questions than it answered.

Stanzel said that "some people" may have used their non-government accounts for official business due to "an abundance of caution" in order to avoid violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of government e-mail for overtly political purposes, such as fundraising -- and due to "logistical convenience."

Over the past six years, about 50 of the White House staffers most involved in Republican Party affairs -- including Rove and his office of political affairs -- were given RNC-issued equipment on which to conduct party business. That included laptops and Blackberries.

For Rove, a noted Blackberry addict who holds the position of senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, that would have meant switching from one device to another when alternating from White House business to Republican party business. Apparently he didn't bother.

Democrats have charged that some White House aides used non-government e-mail accounts to avoid official scrutiny of their actions. Stanzel neither confirmed nor denied that possibility: "I can't speak to people's individual practices. So I can't speak to that question."

So is anyone in trouble? Apparently not. Stanzel was careful to apportion blame widely and generically. "This issue is not the fault of one individual," he said. He refused even to acknowledge that it is the White House counsel's office that is responsible for the establishment and oversight of internal rules of conduct. The White House counsel during Bush's entire first term, of course, was Alberto Gonzales, now the embattled attorney general.

The use of non-government e-mails first became an issue about four weeks ago, when some of the e-mails turned over in a congressional investigation of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys showed that Rove deputy Scott Jennings repeatedly used an RNC e-mail address (sjennings@gwb43.com) in his official communications. One e-mail to Rove was sent to a kr@georgewbush.com address.

Since then, it's been pointed out that some of the e-mails released in the congressional investigation of now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff indicated that former Rove aide Susan Ralston made a point of keeping her communication with Abramoff off the White House e-mail servers, and on either her RNC or AOL e-mail accounts.

Stanzel was joined in the conference call by a White House lawyer who Stanzel insisted not be referred to by name. What is the penalty for violating internal White House policy, I asked? "I don't believe the staff manual contains penalties for failure to preserve," the lawyer said.

Stanzel, possibly unwittingly, offered one possible explanation for why the rule on preservation was flouted so widely: Because there was apparently no prospect of personal consequences. "There are no personal violations of the Presidential Records Act, but you can have a personal violation of the Hatch Act," he said.

The lawyer criticized the crystal-clear (to me) ban on using non-White House e-mail for official purposes as being "too concise" and described a new, more extensive White House policy that has now been issued that further clarifies the obligations of those staffers who have RNC accounts. Stanzel also described another recent change; White House staffers no longer have the ability to delete their RNC e-mail under any circumstances.

Among the many questions Stanzel ducked was this one from me: Had this never come up as an issue in the previous six years? Had no one ever raised a concern about such an obvious evasion of the most basic White House document-preservation rules? Stanzel wouldn't say.

Although Stanzel said that a review was launched several weeks ago, "in context of the U.S. attorney matter," he said the White House still has no grasp of the scale involved -- no sense of how much was lost or how irretrievably. He seemed to know little about how the RNC servers worked, and whether there was any way of forensically retrieving the deleted e-mails.

"I don't want to talk about the scope of the review except to say we hope to be thorough," Stanzel said.

Stanzel said the president has been briefed, "and he has instructed the counsel's office to do everything practical to retrieve potentially lost e-mails."

For more background, see my Tuesday column on the matter: The Next Bush Scandal?

The Coverage

Michael Abramowitz and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post: "The White House acknowledged yesterday that e-mails dealing with official government business may have been lost because they were improperly sent through private accounts intended to be used for political activities. Democrats have been seeking such missives as part of an investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

"Administration officials said they could offer no estimate of how many e-mails were lost but indicated that some may involve messages from White House senior adviser Karl Rove, whose role in the firings has been under scrutiny by congressional Democrats.

"Democrats have charged that Rove and other officials may have used the private accounts, set up through the Republican National Committee, in an effort to avoid normal review. Under federal law, the White House is required to maintain records, including e-mails, involving presidential decision-making and deliberations. White House aides' use of their political e-mail accounts to discuss the prosecutor firings has also fanned Democratic accusations that the actions were politically motivated. . . .

"Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the use of outside accounts, issued a statement saying that the White House disclosure is 'a remarkable admission that raises serious legal and security issues,' adding: 'The White House has an obligation to disclose all the information it has.'"

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House said Wednesday that it may have lost what could amount to thousands of messages sent through a private e-mail system used by political guru Karl Rove and at least 50 other top officials, an admission that stirred anger and dismay among congressional investigators.

"The e-mails were considered potentially crucial evidence in congressional inquiries launched by Democrats into the role partisan politics may have played in such policy decisions as the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. . . .

"The White House briefing Wednesday occurred a few hours after the staff of Waxman's committee and staff of the House Judiciary Committee met with White House officials to discuss the e-mails.

"The White House has informed congressional investigators that it will not be able to meet the committee's deadline of Friday to turn over the communications.

"The House aides are expected to meet with the Republican National Committee's legal staff today. A committee spokesman said the GOP hopes to cooperate as much as possible but provided no further details."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "White House officials said Wednesday that some presidential aides may have improperly used a back-channel e-mail system to conduct government business.

"A conference call that was intended to clear up questions about the use of a Republican Party-sponsored e-mail system at the White House, however, left many questions unanswered. It's still unclear whether White House aides used the outside e-mail system to try to keep their communications secret and how many e-mails might have gone astray.

"Some communications that have come to light suggest that officials may have used the outside system to conceal some of their communications."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Democrats also have been asking if White House officials are purposely conducting sensitive official presidential business via nongovernmental accounts to get around a law requiring preservation -- and eventual disclosure -- of presidential records. The announcement of the lost e-mails -- a rare admission of error from the Bush White House at a delicate time for the administration's relations with Democratically controlled Capitol Hill -- gave new fodder for inquiry on this front."

Holly Rosenkrantz writes for Bloomberg: "Stanzel blamed the loss on staff confusion about the law requiring all official White House business to be preserved, as well as aides failing to switch to their official e-mail accounts in the midst of sending messages. That explanation drew skepticism from Democrats.

"'This sounds like the administration's version of the dog ate my homework,' Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said. 'Just when this administration is finally subjected to meaningful oversight, it cannot produce the necessary information.'

"The Vermont Democrat, whose panel is investigating the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys last year, said he was 'deeply disturbed' by the situation. . . .

"Leahy and Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote White House Counsel Fred Fielding on March 28 asking that he take steps to preserve any e-mails written by White House personnel from non- government e-mail addresses.

"'We hope you agree that such sleight of hand not be used to circumvent and compromise the comprehensiveness of our investigation,' the two lawmakers wrote."

On NPR this morning, Renee Montagne spoke with Don Gonyea about the news.

Montagne: "Will there be comparisons in this case to the Watergate era, when Richard Nixon's secretary, Rosemary Woods, quite famously lost 18 minutes of a key audio tape from the Oval Office?"

Gonyea: "It's just inevitable that that very comparison is going to be drawn."

Montagne: "If e-mails have been destroyed, isn't someone in a lot of trouble?"

Gonyea: "If someone is found to have destroyed those e-mails willfully -- or in order to avoid turning them over to Congress, then that would indeed be a serious crime in itself. We just don't know for sure what the intent was yet."

In her New York Times story, Sheryl Gay Stolberg inaccurately reports that the RNC in 2004 "adopted a policy of preserving e-mail sent by White House officials using its accounts." What Stanzel actually said was that the RNC just stopped the automatic deletion of those e-mails. Individual staffers could still delete at will, and may very well have regularly cleared out their mailboxes on their own. "Preservation," in this context, means everything is automatically archived.

Voter Fraud Watch

Eric Lipton and Ian Urbina write in the New York Times: "Five years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews.

"Although Republican activists have repeatedly said fraud is so widespread that it has corrupted the political process and, possibly, cost the party election victories, about 120 people have been charged and 86 convicted as of last year.

"Most of those charged have been Democrats, voting records show. Many of those charged by the Justice Department appear to have mistakenly filled out registration forms or misunderstood eligibility rules, a review of court records and interviews with prosecutors and defense lawyers show. . . .

"Voter fraud is a highly polarized issue, with Republicans asserting frequent abuses and Democrats contending that the problem has been greatly exaggerated to promote voter identification laws that could inhibit the turnout by poor voters."

Iraq Watch

Michael Abramowitz and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "The White House and Democratic congressional leaders agreed to meet next Wednesday to discuss the stalemated war funding bill -- but only after a day of dueling statements that left prospects for bipartisan cooperation remote. At one point, officials at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue could not even agree on whether they had agreed to have a meeting."

Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White write in The Washington Post: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced yesterday that all active-duty soldiers currently deployed or going to Iraq and Afghanistan will see their one-year tours extended to 15 months, acknowledging that such a strain on the war-weary Army is necessary should the ongoing troop increase be prolonged well into next year."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Four years after the fall of Baghdad, the White House is once again struggling to solve an old problem: Who is in charge of carrying out policy in Iraq?

"Once again President Bush and his top aides are searching for a high-level coordinator capable of cutting through military, political and reconstruction strategies that have never operated in sync, in Washington or in Baghdad.

"Once again Mr. Bush is publicly declaring that his administration has settled on a strategy for victory -- this time, a troop increase that is supposed to open political space for Sunnis and Shiites to live and govern together -- even while his top aides acknowledge that the White House has never gotten the execution right."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "Two months into the Baghdad security drive, the gains Mr. Bush is banking on have not materialized. More American soldiers continue to arrive, and their commanders are talking about extending the troop buildup through the fall or into early next year. After four years, the political trend is even more discouraging.

"There is no possible triumph in Iraq and very little hope left."

Novak's Confusion

Robert D. Novak, in his syndicated column, seems upset at CIA Director Michael Hayden for describing Valerie Plame as both "undercover" and "covert."

Cheney v. Pelosi, the Next Generation

Liz Cheney writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Anyone familiar with the past two years of Lebanese politics would never claim, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did in Damascus last week, that 'the road to Damascus is a road to peace.' Her assertion must have seemed especially naive to the people of Lebanon, where the list of the slain reads like a 'Who's Who' of Syria's most vocal and effective opponents. . . .

"Talking to the Syrians emboldens and rewards them at the expense of America and our allies in the Middle East. It hasn't and won't change their behavior. They are an outlaw regime and should be isolated."

Cheney's Delusions

Senator Carl Levin writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "On Rush Limbaugh's radio program last week, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke about Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi and stated: 'He went to Baghdad. He took up residence there before we ever launched into Iraq, organized the Al Qaeda operations inside Iraq. . . . This is Al Qaeda operating in Iraq and, as I say, they were present before we invaded Iraq.'

"It is incredible that more than four years after the invasion, the vice president is still trying to convince the public that Saddam Hussein's regime was connected to Al Qaeda and that Zarqawi's presence in Iraq was evidence of a connection.

"While the vice president doesn't say directly that there was a tie between the two, his clear purpose is to blur the line between Al Qaeda -- the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks -- and the Iraqi dictator in order to justify the war in Iraq.

"The problem is, that's simply not supported by the facts or by our intelligence community -- and everyone except the vice president acknowledges it. . . .

"By all accounts, Dick Cheney is one of the most powerful vice presidents in our history, if you define power as influence over policy. We need to ask ourselves: What does it mean for our country when the vice president's words lack credibility, but he still wields great power?"

Levin also notes: "The vice president has made so many outlandish statements that the country barely raised an eyebrow at his false statement last week."

For background, here's my raised eyebrow from last Friday: Cheney Sticks to His Delusions.

Iacocca Watch

Gordon Trowbridge writes in the Detroit News: "Lee Iacocca, author of the original business management best-seller, is giving President Bush an 'F' in leadership.

"In a book to be released Tuesday, the former Chrysler CEO -- who supported Bush's first campaign in 2000 but backed Sen. John Kerry four years later -- accused Bush of leading the nation to war 'on a pack of lies' and lacking the basic components of good leadership.

"'I think our current President should visit the real world once in a while,' Iacocca writes, according to excerpts from 'Where Have All the Leaders Gone?' released on the Web site of publisher Simon & Schuster. . . .

"'Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening?' Iacocca writes. 'Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder.'"

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