Waxman Ain't Buying

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 18, 2008; 11:56 AM

Responding to reports that the White House may have destroyed millions of e-mails in violation of public records laws, White House spokesman Tony Fratto went before the press corps yesterday to say: What missing e-mails?

"We have no reason to believe that any e-mail at all are missing," Fratto said.

But Henry Waxman ain't buying.

Last night, the persistent chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee let loose with a double-barreled blast of Congressional truth-squadding.

He disclosed that the White House told his committee investigators last fall that there were almost 500 days on which e-mails weren't archived for certain White House offices. And he demanded an explanation:

"Mr. Fratto's statements have added to the considerable confusion that exists regarding the status of White House efforts to preserve e-mails," Waxman wrote in a letter to White House Counsel Fred Fielding. "To help clarify the situation, I request your testimony and the testimony of Alan Swendiman, the Director of the Office of Administration, at a hearing on February 15, 2008. . . . At the hearing, I ask that you be prepared to address the . . . following questions:

"* Allegations that Executive Office of the President E-mails Were Lost between 2003 and 2005: When did the White House learn about any such losses, what are the extent of such losses, what steps has the White House taken to respond to any such losses, and who was responsible for ensuring the preservation of White House e-mails during this period?

"* Recycling of Back-up Tapes between 2001 and 2003: Who had responsibility for ensuring the preservation of e-mails between 2001 and 2003, who was responsible for the decision to recycle back-up tapes during this period, what was the basis of the decision to recycle back-up tapes, who was responsible for the decision to stop this practice in 2003, and why did this change in practice take place?

"* Electronic Records Preservation at the White House: Have concerns been raised about the adequacy of the e-mail preservation system, and what steps has the White House taken to ensure sufficient electronic records preservation and e-mail archiving?

"* Presidential Transition Planning: Who is responsible for preparing the White House to transition presidential records to the National Archives, what directives have been issued to White House staff regarding preservation of records and preparation for transition, what plans have been developed for the transition of both paper and electronic records, and what has the White House done to coordinate with the National Archives on transition planning?"

Here is Fratto at yesterday's press briefing, which blogger Steve Benen described as a " Who's on First?" routine.

Fratto: "I think to the best of what all the analysis we've been able to do, we have absolutely no reason to believe that any emails are missing; there's no evidence of that. There's no -- we tried to reconstruct some of the work that went into a chart that was entered into court records and could not replicate that or could not authenticate the correctness of the data in that chart. And from everything that we can tell, our analysis of our backup systems, we have no reason to believe that any email at all are missing."

Q: "So where are they?"

Fratto: "Where are what? . . . We have no reason to believe that there's any data missing at all -- and we've certainly found no evidence of any data missing."

Q: "So that would mean that if you were asked, you would be in a position to comply with a request to produce those documents?"

Fratto: "Yes, which documents?"

The Coverage

Dan Eggen and Elizabeth Williamson write in The Washington Post: "The White House possesses no archived e-mail messages for many of its component offices, including the Executive Office of the President and the Office of the Vice President, for hundreds of days between 2003 and 2005, according to the summary of an internal White House study that was disclosed yesterday by a congressional Democrat. . . .

"Waxman said he decided to release the summary after White House spokesman Tony Fratto said yesterday that there is "no evidence" that any White House e-mails from those years are missing. Fratto's assertion 'seems to be an unsubstantiated statement that has no relation to the facts they have shared with us,' Waxman said. . . .

"Fratto said yesterday that 'we tried to reconstruct some of the work . . . and could not replicate that or could not authenticate the correctness of the data in that chart.' In an e-mailed response to questions, he also said the e-mails in question may exist on backup tapes that are separate from the archival system."

But, as was widely reported yesterday (see yesterday's column), those backup tapes were apparently recycled on a daily basis until October 2003. So missing e-mails from before that date may not be on the backups either.

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The White House's latest statements represent a shift from what it was saying last spring when it seemed uncertain whether e-mail was missing from the archives or not. The latest statements also represent a shift from what the White House apparently told prosecutors over two years ago in the probe into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name.

"In January 2006, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald reported that 'we have learned that not all e-mail of the Office of Vice President and the Executive Office of the President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through the normal archiving process on the White House computer system.'"

As for what might have precipitated a change in tape retention policy in October 2003? A timeline compiled by blogger emptywheel may offer a hint: It was on Sept. 30, 2003 that then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales alerted White House staffers to retain documents related to the just-launched investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative.

Readers Respond

I've gotten lots of e-mail the last couple days from White House Watch readers with expertise in information technology.

One writes: "I can tell you as a matter of fact that it would have been nearly impossible for any IT manager, or systems administrator inside or outside of the government to ignorant of the need to retain archival backups under appropriate circumstances. . . .

"I don't know if the White House has off-site backups, but there should be some record of what and how many tapes were transported. . . .

"I can tell you, there are a lot of us tech types out here who 'make the sausage' late at night for critical corporate and government data. DC has scores of people who do this type of work, and the trucks to Iron Mountain are thick as fleas in Northern Virginia alone, much less downtown. The information coming from the White House has some serious, serious problems, and is not credible in some very important ways.

"They're framing this like the data they were supposed to be saving in case DC got nuked was a misplaced umbrella. It's not a credible representation, and ineptitude and playing dumb really don't cut it."

Stimulus Watch

Neil Irwin and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "President Bush plans to lay out the principles behind his preferred stimulus today, although he will not provide details. The leading ideas in the administration are to give rebates of up to $800 to each taxpayer and introduce tax incentives for business investment, but administration officials said no decision has been made on exactly what to do to try to prevent a recession. . . .

"Republican leaders, meanwhile, indicated that they could go along with a stimulus plan that does not include a permanent extension of Bush's first-term tax cuts, which are to expire in 2011."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "In a rare sign of his willingness to cut a deal with Democrats in Congress, White House officials said Mr. Bush would not demand that the stimulus package include provisions that permanently extend his signature tax cuts from 2001 and 2003."

It's not all smooth sailing, however. Irwin and Weisman write that during a conference call Bush held with congressional leaders yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "was angry when he heard that Bush was going to go public today with his stimulus proposals, demanding to know why the president was not waiting for a bipartisan plan. Others on the conference call had to calm Reid down, according to congressional sources, and Bush reassured him that he would be announcing only his 'principles' for stimulus, not a plan.

"'I am disappointed that [Bush] is rejecting a request from leaders of both parties and both chambers to work with us directly to develop a bipartisan package rather than unilaterally detailing his own approach without congressional input,' Reid said in a written statement."

On CNN this morning, counselor Ed Gillespie promoted Bush's stimulus plan -- while insisting that, overall, the economy is doing fine.

"The economy is fundamentally sound. There's adjustment going on in the housing market right now, which is the natural occurrence in a market economy. Prices go up and down," Gillespie said.

'The President today is going to lay out some principles that he sees as effective in terms of helping to give our economy a shot in the arm. . . . And what the president is going to highlight is the fact that any package we agree on with Congress and a bipartisan plan should be timely, should have an immediate impact in the economy, should have a direct effect, should be simple, should be broad based, and should be big enough to have a positive impact on a very big economy."

Torture Watch

Movie reviewer A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times: "A year from now, the presidency of George W. Bush will end, but the consequences of Mr. Bush's policies and the arguments about them are likely to be with us for a long time. As next Jan. 20 draws near, there is an evident temptation, among many journalists as well as politicians seeking to replace Mr. Bush, to close the book and move ahead, an impulse that makes the existence of documentaries like Alex Gibney's 'Taxi to the Dark Side' all the more vital. If recent American history is ever going to be discussed with the necessary clarity and ethical rigor, this film will be essential."

Kenneth Turan writes in the Los Angeles Times: "[T]hough the official line out of Washington is still 'we do not torture,' it's impossible to watch this film -- and hear testimony not just from soldiers but also veteran FBI men and former Bush administration officials -- without coming to understand that torture is exactly what we are engaged in. . . .

"Gibney's film is at pains to show where the impetus for this kind of savage behavior began. He starts with two men he calls the architect and the draftsman of what he sees not as the work of 'a few bad apples' but as a systematic determination to flaunt the Geneva Conventions where terrorists were concerned.

"The architect is Vice President Dick Cheney, represented by a post-Sept. 11 clip in which he talks about having to 'work the dark side, spend time in the shadows, use any means at our disposal' to deal with terrorism. The draftsman is John Yoo, formerly of the Office of Legal Counsel, whose elastic position on torture boils down to the notion that if the government decides it has to do something, like water-boarding, it by definition isn't torture."

And in a review of a new book, "Torture and Democracy" by Darius Rejali, Laurel Maury writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Rejali, a leading expert on government interrogation techniques, reaches key conclusions."

Among them: "[M]onitoring by human rights groups doesn't stop torture; it simply causes torturers to resort to techniques that don't scar, including methods that some Americans call 'torture lite.' After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, a U.S. Special Forces unit placed a sign in a detention center that read, 'No blood, no foul,' he writes. In fact, techniques that don't leave marks can cause more psychological damage; they traumatize yet leave no physical evidence to corroborate a victims."

Another conclusion: "[A] person being tortured is likely to say whatever he thinks his captors want to hear, making it one of the poorest methods for gathering reliable information."

Joby Warrick of The Washington Post interviewed CIA director Michael V. Hayden yesterday. In a story mostly about Hayden's views on the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Warrick writes:

"Regarding the public controversy over the CIA's harsh interrogation of detainees at secret prisons, Hayden reiterated previous agency statements that lives were saved and attacks were prevented as a result of those interrogations.

"He said he does not support proposals, put forward by some lawmakers in recent weeks, to require the CIA to abide by the Army Field Manual in conducting interrogations. The manual, adopted by the Defense Department, prohibits the use of many aggressive methods, including a simulated-drowning technique known as waterboarding.

"'I would offer my professional judgment that that will make us less capable in gaining the information we need,' he said."

David Ljunggren writes for Reuters: "Canada's foreign ministry has put the United States and Israel on a watch list of countries where prisoners risk being tortured and also classifies some U.S. interrogation techniques as torture, according to a document obtained by Reuters on Thursday."

NIE Watch

Here is Bush's exchange with Fox News's Greta Van Susteren in an interview taped on Monday and shown Wednesday night:

Van Susteren: "Do you believe -- in December there was an intelligence report that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program as of 2003. Do you believe that?"

Bush: "I believe that the intelligence professionals are very sincere in their analysis. That should not say to people that Iran is not a threat. In other words -- "

Van Susteren: "You believe that --"

Bush: "I believe they want a weapon, and I believe that they're trying to gain the know-how as to how to make a weapon under the guise of a civilian nuclear program."

In other words, he believes the intelligence professionals were sincere, but that, when it comes to their central finding, they were wrong.

And yet, as AFP reports: "Bush endorses the 'full scope' of last month's US intelligence findings on Iran, the White House said Thursday after Bush seemed to distance himself from the report.

"'The president stands by the full scope of the findings in that they were put together by incredibly dedicated people that did their best work and put their best views out,' spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters."

Covering Up for Cheney?

Kirk Johnson writes in the New York Times: "The arrest of a man named Steven Howards in June 2006 after he approached Vice President Dick Cheney at a Colorado ski resort and denounced the war in Iraq might have seemed, at the time, no more than a blip on the vice president's schedule.

"But now the blip has become a blowup, with Secret Service agents -- under oath in court depositions -- accusing one another of unethical and perhaps even illegal conduct in the handling of Mr. Howards's arrest and the official accounting of it.

"The revelations arise from a lawsuit Mr. Howards filed against five Secret Service agents, accusing them of civil rights and free-speech violations. . . .

"The agent who made the arrest, Virgil D. Reichle Jr., . . . said in his deposition that he believed the vice president's security detail had wanted the Howards arrest to go away so that Mr. Cheney would not be inconvenienced by a court case."

A lawyer for Howards, David A. Lane, "said he had requested that Mr. Cheney submit to a deposition but that he had been repeatedly turned down by the vice president's lawyers. But Mr. Lane said the mire of accusations and counteraccusations that have been exposed by the Secret Service testimony has made Mr. Cheney an indispensable witness."

Karl Rove Watch

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle that former Bush political guru Karl Rove is "writing a magazine column, working on a book and trying to stay relevant in a political cycle that seems to have moved on without him.

"Still full of bluster and scorn, Rove this week spoke to state GOP leaders at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting."

Think Progress notes that Rove "delivered a 3,200 word speech yesterday rebuking Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. One name Rove did not mention? George W. Bush."

Alexandra Cooper reports in the Choate Rosemary Hall student newspaper that Rove will be the Connecticut prep school's commencement speaker in June.

She quotes an e-mail message from Choate Headmaster Ed Shanahan: "We have commencement speakers from outside of the school community so that someone comes in with a message for graduating students about the world that they are about to engage in. Karl Rove is somebody who has dedicated a significant portion of his life to service, and has been an extremely influential person."

Cooper writes: "Despite this, the decision to invite Rove to be the graduation speaker has been met with much controversy on the Choate campus and among alumni and students. . . .

"An anonymous student remarked 'What will [Dr.] Shanahan do if Rove gets indicted? Will he still be the 'key figure in shaping history' that the headmaster wants for the role?'"

The editorial board of the Choate News notes: "At Commencement two years ago . . . Headmaster Shanahan asked graduating seniors to think of their responsibilities to themselves, and to others. He lamented how 'responsibility to others and for oneself has been all but forgotten in certain circles.' Mr. Shanahan alluded to various public figures who have been exposed for scandalous activities, noting that in spite of their lack of ethics and sense of responsibility they were all found to be 'not guilty.' At that Commencement Mr. Shanahan posed a very important and pressing question: 'How can so many moral, ethical and legal laws be broken and still no one is guilty, no one assumes public responsibility for having chosen to do wrong?'

"It is ironic that the man who issued those words two years ago has chosen a commencement speaker who has gained infamy in many circles for less-than-ethical decisions and actions. Thus far, Mr. Rove has not been indicted for any major crimes. But, many would argue that he is as culpable for the compromised situation the country finds itself in as any other figure of the Bush administration."

Impeachment (Non) Watch

Florida Rep. Robert Wexler's online petition calling for Cheney impeachment hearings has topped the 200,000-signatures mark.

Froomkin Watch

Monday is a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday. The column will resume on Tuesday.

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart finds Bush's awkward interview with ABC's Terry Moran laugh-out-loud funny.

Craig Ferguson via U.S. News: "The President's daughter, Jenna Bush," has "set a date for her wedding. She's excited about the marriage, especially the part where she gets to change her name."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles and Stuart Carlson on Bush's homecoming.

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