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White House use of outside e-mail raises red flags

Businesses often face similar risks by employees, experts say

By Todd R. Weiss
March 29, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - For official government business, staff members in the Bush White House use government-issued e-mail accounts where all communications are then stored, archived and preserved for eventual inclusion in the National Archives.

But for several years, some high-ranking Bush staff members have also apparently been using outside e-mail accounts for nongovernmental, political communications. Those accounts, through the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, allowed the officials to keep up with both their official and political responsibilities while not violating the Hatch Act. That law forbids many government officials from engaging in political activities from their workplaces.

While the focus of those particular incidents is on the White House, the issue is one that should be getting close scrutiny from businesses across the nation, experts said.

The concern is that if company communications are being conducted outside official corporate e-mail systems, there's no way to control their security, preservation or use, something that can leave companies vulnerable to a wide variety of legal problems and regulatory compliance issues.

In the White House case this week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent letters Monday to the chairmen of the RNC and the former Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign committee, asking them to explain more about the use of the outside e-mail accounts. In the letters, Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said his group wants to know what's been done to preserve the contents of the outside e-mail accounts used by government officials for possible review and to assure that "no e-mails involving official White House business have been destroyed or altered.

"Congressional investigations have revealed that White House officials have used nongovernmental e-mail accounts, including those maintained by the RNC, to conduct official White House business," the letters said. "The Committee has questions about who has access to these e-mail records and how the RNC protects them from destruction or tampering. The Committee also directs you to preserve all such records because of their potential relevance to congressional investigations. Such e-mails written in the conduct of White House business would appear to be govemmental records subject to preservation and eventual public disclosure."

The Oversight Committee first learned of the outside e-mail accounts during investigations of White House contacts with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which found "that many of the e-mail exchanges between Jack Abramoff and White House officials were conducted via nongovernmental e-mail accounts. In at least one [incoming message to Abramoff], the e-mails indicate that these nonofficial accounts were being used because 'to put this stuff in writing in their [White House] e-mail system ... might actually limit what they can do to help us.'"



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