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E-Mail Saga Gets Fishier

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 13, 2007 1:42 PM

The saga of the missing White House e-mails took a turn from the deeply suspicious to the deeply, darkly suspicious yesterday as Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman disclosed the bizarre response by the Republican National Committee to early indications that consequential White House e-mails -- particularly to and from Karl Rove -- were being deleted.

From 2001 to 2004, the RNC's highly unusual "document retention" policy was to intentionally destroy all e-mails that were more than 30 days old. In the summer of 2004, due to "unspecified legal inquiries," the RNC changed its policy by allowing -- but not mandating -- the indefinite retention of e-mails sent and received by White House staffers on their RNC accounts. That was just around the time special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation of White House involvement in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity was kicking into high gear.

Then, in 2005, when RNC officials discovered that all of Rove's RNC e-mails were still getting deleted, presumably by Rove himself, they blocked his ability -- and his ability alone -- to do that. Other White House staffers could still delete at will, just not Rove.

All this stands in dramatic contrast to explicit White House rules mandating that all official White House electronic communications take place exclusively through official White House e-mail accounts, which are supposed to automatically archive everything forever.

Rove, the Bush administration's ultimate political fixer, reportedly used his RNC e-mail for the vast majority of his electronic communication in violation of those rules.

These new, largely unexplained revelations were included in an extraordinary series of letters that Waxman, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent to 17 government agencies yesterday demanding that they preserve any e-mails received from or sent to non-governmental e-mail accounts used by White House staffers.

For background on this story, see my Tuesday column, The Next Bush Scandal?, and yesterday's column, Countless White House E-Mails Deleted.

The Coverage

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "A lawyer for the Republican National Committee told congressional staff members yesterday that the RNC is missing at least four years' worth of e-mail from White House senior adviser Karl Rove that is being sought as part of investigations into the Bush administration, according to the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"GOP officials took issue with Rep. Henry Waxman's account of the briefing and said they still hope to find the e-mail as they conduct forensic work on their computer equipment. But they acknowledged that they took action to prevent Rove -- and Rove alone among the two dozen or so White House officials with RNC accounts -- from deleting his e-mails from the RNC server. Waxman (D-Calif.) said he was told the RNC made that move in 2005. . . .

"E-mails from Rove and other White House officials potentially figure in a number of congressional investigations. . . .

"The RNC yesterday turned over to the White House a copy of e-mail records for administration officials still on the RNC server to determine whether any of them are privileged or whether they can be provided to congressional investigators. Officials indicated that they would include post-2005 e-mails from Rove.

"GOP officials said they are also trying to determine whether they can recover other e-mail that may have been deleted through regular purges of e-mails or by deliberate deletion by White House staff. Waxman said the RNC indicated that it had destroyed all e-mail records from White House officials in 2001, 2002 and 2003."

Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee accused the Bush administration Thursday of trying to bury potentially damaging Republican Party e-mails about eight fired U.S. attorneys and compared the situation to Watergate.

"'They say they have not been preserved. I don't believe that!' said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., of e-mails that the White House had said a day earlier might be lost. 'You can't erase e-mails, not today. They've gone through too many servers. Those e-mails are there, they just don't want to produce them. It's like the infamous 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes.'

"Leahy said the idea of lost e-mails was 'like saying the dog ate my homework.'

"His tirade on the Senate floor blindsided the White House and intensified the confrontation between Congress and the presidency over the fired U.S. attorneys."

Tom Hamburger and Richard A. Serrano write in the Los Angeles Times: "The growing controversy over White House record-keeping and disclosure swirled around presidential advisor Karl Rove on Thursday. . . .

"As demands for documents escalated, other Democrats suggested Thursday that the White House had withheld potentially embarrassing information, a charge the administration vigorously denies. . . .

"Leahy and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the judiciary panel, wrote a letter to White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding asking that the White House establish an 'objective process for investigating this matter, including the use of a mutually trusted computer-forensic expert.' . . .

"Also Thursday, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood), chairwoman of the panel's administrative law subcommittee, wrote to RNC Chairman Robert M. 'Mike' Duncan, demanding 'prompt delivery' by next week of all e-mails stored by the RNC related to the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In a letter to Mr. Leahy and Representative John Conyers Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Fielding, the White House counsel, said the administration was prepared to produce e-mail from the national committee, but only as part of a 'carefully and thoughtfully considered package of accommodations' -- in other words, only as part of the offer for Mr. Rove and the others to appear in private.

"Mr. Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, issued a tart reply: 'The White House position seems to be that executive privilege not only applies in the Oval Office, but to the R.N.C. as well. There is absolutely no basis in law or fact for such a claim.'"

Stolberg also discloses the existence of yet a third e-mail account used by Rove, this one "a private domain account that is registered to the political consulting company he once owned."

Unifying Scandal Theory

Blogger Josh Marshall writes: "I can say that I am very confident . . . that orders from Pat Fitzgerald were the reason for the change in White House policy in 2004. So the change in policy was tied to yet another criminal investigation of the White House. And the White House and the key employees in question -- namely Karl Rove and people working for him at the White House political office -- were specifically on notice not to destroy the emails they sent through the RNC servers. And yet they took affirmative steps to continue destroying them, even after all of this had happened."

It was in October 2004 that Rove suddenly turned over to Fitzgerald a July 2003 e-mail sent to then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, that clearly showed that Rove had spoken to then-Time magazine reporter Cooper. In subsequent testimony, Rove says he had forgotten the conversation, in which he revealed Plames identity, but remembered it after his lawyers found that e-mail.

Michael Isikoff wrote in Newsweek in October 2005: "Why didn't the Rove e-mail surface earlier? [Rove's] lawyer says it's because an electronic search conducted by the White House missed it because the right 'search words' weren't used. (The White House and Fitzgerald both declined to comment.)"

You've got to wonder which e-mail account Rove used for that e-mail -- and how it was discovered.

And Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon about the multitude of examples of the Bush administration's "terrible luck with finding documents."

Early Warning?

One of the great mysteries here is how such a blatant violation of the White House's document-preservation rules (and, quite possibly, the Presidential Records Act) was allowed to continue for so long. Surely the White House counsel's office was aware of this before last month?

Alexis Simendinger writes in the National Journal (subscription required) that embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, back when he was White House counsel in Bush's first term, met "regularly with a group of historians and political scientists who aired their concerns about preserving and releasing records."

After Gonzales was succeeded by Harriet Miers, Simendinger reports, "The historians and political scientists continued to meet with Miers, and in March 2006 raised with her a concern that official White House business transacted via the RNC e-mail system was not being archived. She assured them that official records were being preserved on the White House system.

"Bush attorneys, including Deputy Counsel Emmet Flood, this week told Congress that the White House only recently -- in the context of the fired attorneys -- discovered that official business had been conducted through the RNC e-mail system, and that there were problems with the preservation of such communications as presidential records."

The Anonymous Liberal blogs: "[T]he White House's dual email system was almost surely the subject of intense discussion in early 2004, when emails were subpoenaed in connection with the CIA leak investigation. . . .

"In other words, the White House has been on notice since early 2004 at the latest that official emails, which are required by law to be retained, were not being retained. It is ludicrous that the White House is just now endeavoring to re-examine its policy and just now setting new rules and guidelines for the use of these RNC accounts."

CREW's Charge

And it may not be just the RNC e-mails that are missing.

Michael Kranish writes in the Boston Globe that "an independent group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. . .said unnamed sources told the group the White House had conducted an internal review that estimated that more than 5 millions e-mails may be missing.

"Anne Weismann, the chief counsel for the citizens group, said in a telephone interview that many e-mails were lost because the White House did not put in place a system for archiving them after it dropped one that had been used by the Clinton administration.

"'They didn't keep a backup,' Weismann said. 'There was no way to ensure they were not modified or deleted in some way.'"

Kranish also notes: "The fact that e-mails are missing was noted -- but not widely and publicly noticed -- in the perjury trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby.

"In January 2006, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald sent a letter to Libby's lawyer that noted that 'we have learned that not all of the e-mail of the Office of the Vice President and the Executive Office of the President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through the normal archiving process of the White House computer system.'"

Perino's Excuse

Here's an innovative excuse from White House spokeswoman Dana Perino yesterday: I can't be held accountable for statements I make when it turns out later on I didn't know what I was talking about.

From yesterday's briefing:

"Q On March 27th at this podium, you said that there were only a handful of White House aides who had these political RNC accounts. Now you're saying 22. That doesn't sound like a handful.

"MS. PERINO: Well, I didn't know how many there were. And I think that, again, if you look at the number of people that work at the White House, almost 2,000, to have 22 people that -- I mean, that's obviously -- I grant you, it's a very large handful, but it's still a relatively small number. . . .

"Q This seems to be -- at least Senator Leahy seems to be suggesting now this is a credibility issue; that the explanations coming out of the White House don't pass some sort of sniff test for him.

"MS. PERINO: I don't know how you could possibly say that when what we have done is endeavor to be very forthcoming and honest in talking about a policy that we've had. Now, it would be different if we hadn't said anything at all. But we didn't. . . .

"Q But what you've said has shifted even over the last couple of weeks.

"MS. PERINO: Give me an example of that.

"Q Fifty, 22, handful.

"MS. PERINO: Look -- and I explained that. You have to admit that when I said a handful, I was asked based on something that I didn't know."

The Readers Write

A few observations from White House Watch readers:

David Holtzman (who happens to be the author of a book called Privacy Lost) sent the following message:

"There are ways of retrieving deleted emails from servers and reconstructing from backup tapes. The only time that doesn't work, given sufficient resources, is when a determined and systematic effort has been made to expunge the digital record. This is very hard to do, requires professional oversight and leaves a trail."

Congressional investigators -- and journalists -- "should insist that the RNC hire an outside consultant to look at backup tapes and their internal (or network hosted) servers in an attempt to reconstruct the missing material. . . .

"Not only should they hire a 3rd party to look at the computers, but they should immediately make an 'image' (complete backup copy) of their email servers so that they can't claim that it disappeared again."

John Avignone from Austin writes: "I've been a network engineer and administrator for various corporate networks, including administrating email servers no doubt very similar to those at the RNC...

"Every large network of any kind regularly runs backup routines. This way in case of catastrophic computer failure, everything can be restored to the last backup. This is done weekly, if not daily. Extremely busy, mission critical servers backup continually in real time.

"These backups are usually stored locally and in a very safe off-site location and for perpetuity. . . .

"It's possible the RNC regularly destroys their backups. However, that would be extremely unusual and alone would generate huge suspicion in the mind of any IT or forensics professional. There's simply no good reason to destroy a backup. . . . The only reason to destroy backups is to destroy evidence."

Susan G Wheeler writes: "Has anyone explored the issue of electronic security (encryption, etc.) on the RNC or AOL email accounts that WH personnel are using to conduct the country's business? While the country is focused on the physical ramifications of terrorism, we should also be concerned about what others can ascertain electronically. Besides discussing DOJ lawyers, what other information is being discussed without government-grade electronic security? . . . Isn't this a violation of something more serious than just WH rules of employee conduct?"

And a reader who prefers to remain anonymous writes: "Those Rovian e-mails aren't lost or permanently deleted. They represent huge bucks in the form of notes for his multi-million dollar memoirs and 'job insurance' against anyone who thinks they can dump him overboard. Nope, Karl Rove has a copy of every one of his e-mails on a hard drive or CD disc at home."

Czar Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's top national security adviser said Thursday that there is an urgent need to name a high-powered White House official to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"'It's something I would like to have done yesterday and if yesterday wasn't available, the day before,' National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters during a briefing at the White House. A day earlier, the White House had said the idea for a so-called war czar was still in its infancy."

Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "The new 'execution manager,' as the White House termed the position, would be empowered to cut through the bureaucracy and talk directly with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and other key figures to figure out what is needed to make progress on the ground. . . .

"Under the proposal by national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, the execution manager would talk daily with the military commanders and U.S. ambassadors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The official would then meet with Bush each morning to review developments. The goal to meet requests for support by Petraeus and others would be 'same-day service,' the proposal said.

"So far, the White House has had trouble finding someone to fill the new assignment. At least five retired four-star generals have declined to be considered. Since The Post disclosed the plan this week, many Democrats and former military officers have blasted the idea as a misguided reorganization or as an abrogation of presidential responsibility.

"'Standing up a war czar is just throwing in another layer of bureaucracy,' retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, told reporters yesterday. 'Excuse me -- we have a chain of command already and it's time for our leaders to step up and take charge.'"

Baker notes that Hadley at some point decided to change the title from "execution manager" in order "to avoid unintended double meaning."

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service with the details: "Here's how the most important new government job created in a long time got its name changed before it was announced.

"The short version: Reporters chortled at the original choice.

"The job had been unofficially known as 'war czar.' But, as National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told a small group of reporters in his office on Thursday, the official moniker is (or was) 'assistant to the president for Iraq and Afghanistan policy execution.'

"He short-handed it as 'execution manager.' That's what brought the journalists' chortles. Execution, get it?

"Hadley did. And so did Gordon Johndroe, Hadley's top spokesman.

"'Did you say implementation director?' he piped up.

"'Yes,' said Hadley, 'that's what I said. Implementation director.'"

Who Killed the NSC?

David Martin writes for CBSNews.com: "To people who live outside the Washington Beltway, the White House search for a 'war czar' to coordinate strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan may seem like just another bureaucratic shuffle. In reality, it is a confession that in the fifth year of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration still has not figured out how to harness all the agencies of the U.S. government into a unified war effort. . . .

"The National Security Council and the job of National Security Adviser to the President, currently held by Stephen Hadley, was created decades ago for the express purpose of coordinating all of the different agencies that play a role in national security strategy. A search for a 'war czar' is an admission by the Bush administration that the National Security Council has failed to do its job. . . .

"So why can't the National Security Council do its job? The answer, from a retired general who was asked to become the 'war czar,' is that 'Rumsfeld destroyed the NSC.'

"Donald Rumsfeld . . . made clear during his years as Defense Secretary that he regarded the 'interagency process' -- getting all the agencies to participate in the formulation and execution of policy -- as worse than water torture. For him, the 'interagency process' -- read: National Security Council -- was the place where all good ideas went to die. Rumsfeld's gone now, the retired general said, but the habits the NSC learned during those first six years remain."

Editorial Watch

The Austin American-Statesman writes: "While combat troops and their families struggle with longer deployments and escalating violence in Iraq, the Bush administration flails and fails repeatedly to come to grips with a bloody, costly war it chose to prosecute.

"The latest example of the Bush administration's flailing is the notion of appointing a 'war czar.' "

The Seattle Times writes: "The Iraqis want America out. Polls say so. Journalists say so. Iraqis we know in America say so. And if we were in their shoes, we would say so. . . .

"It is said that withdrawal would create chaos. Our reply is that staying in Iraq is creating chaos. . . . "

Rhetoric Undone by Reality

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "On Tuesday, President Bush insisted to members of an American Legion post in Virginia that Democratic political maneuvering over a war spending measure would force troops in Iraq to remain overseas longer.

"'This is unacceptable,' the president said. 'It's unacceptable to me, it's unacceptable to our veterans, it's unacceptable to our military families, and it's unacceptable to many in this country.'

"On Wednesday, however, the Pentagon announced that the tours of members of the armed forces serving in Iraq would automatically be extended by three months to accommodate the administration's push to secure Iraq. . . .

"Senate Democrats seized on the troop announcement and the sensational attacks in Baghdad on Thursday as evidence that the president and his inner circle are in denial about what is going on in Iraq."

Intel Watch

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is threatening to veto a Senate intelligence bill that's laced with provisions that would force the White House and spy agencies to be more responsive to Congress. Among the provisions in the intelligence bill that the Bush administration rejects:

"* Yearly disclosure of the total amount spent on intelligence. The administration has long argued that releasing the figures would be a threat to national security.

"* When lawmakers with jurisdiction ask for intelligence assessments and other information, the bill requires spy chiefs to turn the materials over within 15 days. The measure 'would foster political gamesmanship and elevate routine disagreements to the level of constitutional crises,' the administration says. . . .

"* Required reports on interrogation activities and secret prisons, which the administration says would raise 'grave constitutional issues' and jeopardize sensitive information that should not be widely distributed."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart and John Oliver discuss the czar.

Oliver: "The new czar will be working in the exciting field of mea culpa. Also, the position will be retroactive to 2002, so everything that's gone wrong since then will now have been his fault. . . . "

Stewart: "What about war planning?"

Oliver: "No, no, John. That's more the responsibility of the War Monger, a position Dick Cheney will be retaining."

Cartoon Watch

Bill Mitchell and Ann Telnaes on the czar.

Mike Luckovich and Rex Babin on the missing e-mails.

Opinion Watch

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "As political power ebbs from the Bush presidency, a number of changes are becoming visible around the world -- most of them unwelcome. Simply put, the White House is losing its ability to shape events."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "The infiltration of the federal government by large numbers of people seeking to impose a religious agenda -- which is very different from simply being people of faith -- is one of the most important stories of the last six years. It's also a story that tends to go underreported, perhaps because journalists are afraid of sounding like conspiracy theorists.

"But this conspiracy is no theory."

Joseph L. Galloway writes in his opinion column for McClatchy Newspapers: "It will be costly and painful to prolong the war in Iraq for another 21 months so that those who started it can hand off the harder decision of how to end it to the next occupant of the White House.

"President Bush isn't extending and expanding the war in a search for victory. His dream of victory in Iraq cannot be achieved. Not by sending 30,000 more American troops. Not by making parts of Baghdad temporarily safer by billeting American troops in violent neighborhoods and pushing the slaughter into the northern and southern suburbs - or into the Green Zone where U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work.

"Not by letting American soldiers bear the brunt of combat, targeted not only by our enemies, the Sunni Muslim insurgents but also by our supposed allies, the Shiite majority and the murderous militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In March, more American troops died in Iraq than Iraqi soldiers.

"This is a search for a fig leaf to cover the emperor's nakedness - a way for Bush to go home to Texas with a ringing but hollow declaration that 'Iraq wasn't lost on my watch.' . . .

"While the nation's airwaves this past week were filled with the urgent news of who fathered Anna Nicole Smith's baby and the spectacle of Don Imus waving goodbye to his career in broadcasting over racist and sexist remarks on the air, few seemed to notice that 10 more American troops were killed in Iraq over the weekend.

"Ten young soldiers whose lives of service to the nation were terminated in an instant. Ten military sedans rolling up to the doors of families that were devastated by the news of a death in combat. Fathers, mothers, siblings, spouses, young children, fiancees, friends whose hearts were shattered in an instant. . . .

"It was our preemptive invasion of Iraq that loosed the dogs of war there. It was our negligence that set off sectarian slaughter. It is our continued military presence in Iraq -- where a majority wants us to leave now -- that fans the flames of war.

"What if we left, and our departure forced the Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and others to find some way to live in peace with each other, or at least alongside one another? What if our leaving isn't the worst possible outcome but the best?

"Maybe we'll finally find out after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney go home to Texas and Wyoming, and those whom we choose to succeed them decide to try the one thing that Bush and Cheney have never considered."

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