White House E-Mail Mystery

Saturday, April 14, 2007

THE STORY of the missing White House

e-mails is at that strange moment in the arc of a Washington uproar where it's not clear whether it will turn out to be scandal or sideshow. There was legitimate reason for the White House to seek to comply with Hatch Act strictures and separate political from official business. But it's clear -- indeed, the White House has acknowledged -- that officials there received sloppy guidance about when to use their official White House e-mail accounts and when to use other accounts supplied by the Republican National Committee. Having gotten sloppy guidance, the relatively small number of officials with these dual accounts -- 22 at present, and about 50 over the course of the administration -- behaved even more sloppily; they used their political accounts to transact what might have been official business and therefore should have been preserved under the Presidential Records Act. Now, some -- perhaps years' worth -- of these political e-mails appear to be missing. As White House spokeswoman Dana Perino put it Thursday, "Well, I will admit it; we screwed up and we're trying to fix it."

What's not clear, and what needs to be determined, is whether this episode reflects more than sloppiness -- whether it indicates a deliberate effort on the part of some White House staffers to conduct government business offline in a way that would protect them from the prying eyes of Congress now or historians later. A particular mystery is what happened to the

e-mails of Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser. The RNC did take unusual precautions to preserve Mr. Rove's e-mails, but the evidence so far suggests that that was out of an abundance of caution because of legal matters involving Mr. Rove, not because Mr. Rove was suspected of malicious deletion.

All this is certainly a legitimate subject for congressional inquiry. As the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.), respectively, wrote to the White House on Thursday, it would be helpful for all involved "to jointly agree upon a fair and objective process for investigating this matter," try to reconstruct the missing e-mails, and "restore public confidence in the White House's desire to comply with the Presidential Records Act."

But it's not particularly helpful, as Mr. Leahy did in a speech on the Senate floor, to invoke "the infamous 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes" or to accuse the administration of deliberately causing the e-mails to disappear. If White House aides were trying to conduct government business off the official record, why would they have sent e-mails from their gwb43.com accounts to Justice Department officials at the Justice officials' government


At the same time, we can understand the frustration of Mr. Leahy and his colleagues. The good news Thursday was that White House counsel Fred F. Fielding finally responded to

letters from Mr. Leahy and others about lawmakers' request for access to White House

e-mails and officials; the bad news was that Mr. Fielding simply reiterated his previous, inadequate offer, including interviews that would not even be transcribed. Caught in a mess largely of its own making, the White House needs to do better.

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