By Michael Abramowitz and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 12, 2007
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.
Briefing reporters yesterday about an initial review of the private e-mail system, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel declined to discuss whether the political aides were driven by a desire to conduct business outside of potential review. "I can't speak to people's individual e-mail practices," he said.
Stanzel conceded that the White House had done a poor job of instructing staff members how to save politically oriented e-mail and said that it has developed new guidance for the more than 20 staffers who have official as well as political e-mail addresses. He also said that the White House is trying to recover the lost e-mails.
"The White House has not at this point done a good enough job at overseeing the practices of staff with political e-mail accounts," Stanzel said. "Some officials' e-mails have potentially been lost and that is a mistake that the White House is aggressively working to fix."
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."
The controversy over the outside e-mail accounts is a byproduct of the ongoing showdown over the prosecutor firings, emerging after the administration recently provided to Congress e-mails from some White House officials that had been sent from their RNC accounts. Scott Jennings, the White House deputy director of political affairs, used a "gwb43.com" e-mail account last August to discuss the replacement of Bud Cummins, who was dismissed as the U.S. attorney for Arkansas, according to one e-mail.
In another e-mail exchange revealed during the investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a White House official was described as warning that "it is better to not put this stuff in writing in [the White House] . . . email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc." Abramoff responded in an e-mail that the message in question "was not supposed to go into the WH system."
The heads of the House and Senate judiciary committees, which are investigating the prosecutor firings, wrote White House counsel Fred F. Fielding on March 28 asking that he preserve any e-mails written by White House employees from non-government e-mail addresses.
Stanzel said in the telephone briefing yesterday that there was a good reason for providing officials such as Rove and his deputies with political e-mail accounts: to help them avoid violations of the Hatch Act, which bars government officials from carrying out political business by using government resources.
The problem, White House officials said, is that the staffers did not receive proper guidance about what to do about e-mails that fall into a gray area between official and political business.
One White House lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under the ground rules of the briefing, said staffers are now being advised that if they have any questions about whether an e-mail is political or official, they should use their private accounts but preserve a copy for review by White House lawyers to see whether it needs to be saved under the Presidential Records Act.