White House emails gone missing

Posted: September 8, 2008 in 2007, Articles
Tags: ,

There have been many other developments on this case since I originally posted this in my old spot, but I dont have time to do a whole new writeup.

Posted by Mark Silva at 10:53 am, updated 3:20 pm CDT
in White House | Permalink

In the congressional investigation of the White House’s role in the firing of several federal prosecutors last year, the Justice Department has turned over reams of emails and memos to Congress.

But there may be many more missing emails, it turns out, because many people within the White House have been exchanging emails on a Republican National Committee account using private laptop computers provided by the party for nearly two dozen employees of the president.

The White House maintains that the idea was to keep political business off of government computers. But the record of some public business may have gone missing, the White House acknowledges today. “We screwed up,” Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino said today, “and we’re trying to fix it.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, for one, isn’t buying it. “That’s like saying the dog ate my homework,” Leahy (D-Vt.) said on the Senate floor today, pledging to subpeona records the White House won’t produce. “Now we’re learning that off-book communications are being used by these people in the White House by using Republican political email addresses, and they say they have not been preserved. I don’t believe that! I don’t believe that! You can’t erase emails, not today.”

Sen. Leahy: “You can’t erase emails, not today.”

Scott Stanzel, an assistant to Press Secretary Tony Snow – who has said that he does not have one of the “G.W. Bush accounts” that the party has provided – explained the situation to reporters today.

“At the White House, there are approximately 1,700 people who work for the Executive Office of the President,” Stanzel said. “About a thousand of those are political appointees, which means they are not career employees. Of that 1,000, 22 have RNC-provided email accounts, because they, in their normal course of duties, have to regularly interface with political organizations.”

Perino, the chief deputy press secretary, later elaborated that 22 “current” White House employees have these accounts — but that the number would grow to 50 if one counted everyone who had come and gone and had held these party accounts since the start of the Bush administration.

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“If you look at the number of people that work at the White House — almost 2,000 — to have 22 people, that’s — I mean, that’s — obviously, I grant you, it’s a very large handful — but it’s still a relatively small number,” Perino said, noting that the party-relayed email has been archived since 2004.

That includes the email of people such as Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser and deputy chief of staff. It is “largely” the Office of Political Affairs at the White House that has the laptops.

And that’s not only laptops, but also BlackBerrys, which proliferated in the White House after Sept. 11, 2001. “Most people in the White House did not get BlackBerrys until well after September 11th,” Perino said. “And that communication has now become ubiquitous… So now you’re on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it seems that you don’t ever have a break. And so technology really moves quickly, and the policy should have evolved with it, and it didn’t. But we’re trying to fix it now. ”

Yet, they are not sure, they say, what may have been lost.

“Let me say it succinctly… some emails dealing with official business have potentially been lost,” Stanzel said. “That is a mistake that the White House is aggressively working to fix. We will do — take all reasonable steps to retrieve those messages, and we will certainly ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

The White House had not provided “great enough clarity” to its staff about the use of the private computers, which was intended to prevent employees from violating the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits the practice of political business on government property, the White House now says.

The White House logs all of the emails sent and collected on its official server. The party purges its emails after a month — though the White House says employees with party computers have been exlcuded from that automatic purge since 2004.

The president is the one person in the operation who does not use email.

“What we’re talking about are emails that deal with official business that may have been sent by those individuals, that 2 percent of individuals of those political appointees at the White House who have these accounts, those emails being sent to other people outside the White House complex,” Stanzel said.

In the erasure of communications involving public business, however, the White House could be running afoul of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, congressional leaders say.

The White House blames the rapid advance of technology on its inattention to the full custodial requirements of the Presidential Records Act. Critics, of course, say this is a White House prone to secrecy which already has gone a long way toward concealing as much of its record-keeping as possible – with a proliferation of classification of documents unprecedented in previous administrations.

“We live in a new time,” Stanzel said.

“This is just the second administration who’s actually had email,” he said. “This is the first administration who has dealt with the ubiquity of ’24/7′ communications in the form of BlackBerrys. So it is always on.

“The White House policy actually has been improved,” he said. “We’ve strengthened that in policy, clarified it for staff so they understand how to avoid violations of the Hatch Act, while at the same time adhering to the Presidential Records Act. In the manual previously, White House manual, there was one paragraph about using your official email account for official business. There were two pages of information about making sure that you do not violate the Hatch Act.”

That said, this White House has been in operation for six years now – with BlackBerries and the like in operation from the beginning.

“The White House, overall, could have done a better job in terms of having a clearer policy, in terms of enforcing and overseeing that policy for those individuals who do have political email accounts, and those individuals could have done a better job at adhering to the policy that was in place, however unclear it was,” Stanzel allowed. “And if they had questions, they could have done a better job of coming to the Counsel’s Office with those questions. So, collectively, the White House should have done a better job.”’

What about the question of conducting political business on government time?

“The Office of Political Affairs has been around for more than 25 years,” Stanzel said. “There’s wide recognition that the president, in his role as leader of the party, has certain functions that require him and his staff to interface with political organizations and political parties. So to make sure that we’re not in violation, inadvertent violation of the Hatch Act, by using federal equipment, it’s important for those individuals who do have to interface with political organizations to have outside resources.”

Since 2004, he says, the RNC has excluded White House staff from its automatic deletion of emails – which occurs every 30 days. Since 2004, White House staff with party email accounts have been excluded from that. Still, however, email users often delete files “cluttering up” the inbox, he allows. Until a few weeks ago, they could drag files from their inbox to the deleted items folder, right-click it and clear the folder.

The White House Counsel’s Office is communicating with the RNC’s lawyers to see if any records of official business were lost, and if they can be recovered.

“Wthout knowing how many emails have been sent… you can’t say how many have potentially been lost,” Stanzel said. “What I do know, in terms of the universe, is as I described it — about a thousand political appointees at the White House, 22 of them have political email accounts. Of the emails that they may have sent that did not touch the White House server — so they did not communicate with anybody else here at the White House, but those emails may have dealt with official business — that’s what we’re looking into.”

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