Report: White House staff 'circumvented' official e-mail system

Oversight committee report says more details are needed

The use of outside Republican National Committee (RNC) and Bush-Cheney '04 re-election committee e-mail accounts by at least 88 White House staff members in the Bush Administration was done in a manner that "circumvented" the requirements of federal laws mandating the historical preservation of presidential records.

That's one of the conclusions of a three-month-long U.S. House of Representatives inquiry into the White House use of outside e-mail systems dating back to 2001.

In a 16-page interim report (download PDF) released yesterday by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, investigators said there appears to have been widespread use of such e-mail accounts without proper preservation of the contents of all messages that were sent back and forth. According to the report, the investigation found that at least 88 White House officials used RNC e-mail accounts, which is higher than earlier White House estimates that no more than about 50 staff members had such accounts. The officials with RNC e-mail accounts include Bush senior adviser Karl Rove; Andrew Card, the former White House chief of staff; and Ken Mehlman, the former White House director of political affairs. Other users include officials in the Office of Political Affairs, the Office of Communications, and the Office of the Vice President, according to the report.

Rove and other officials used their RNC e-mail accounts heavily, according to the inquiry. For example, some 140,216 e-mails were sent or received by Rove and ultimately preserved by RNC IT systems, according to the report. More than half of those e-mails -- 75,374 -- were sent to or received from people using official ".gov" e-mail accounts, indicating they were for official business, according to the committee.

The problem with the use of the outside e-mail accounts, the report concludes, is that none of the RNC system e-mails for 51 of the 88 officials who used the system were preserved at all, leaving a gap in the presidential records that by law are supposed to be preserved.

For at least 37 White House officials for whom the RNC did preserve e-mails, there are "major gaps" in the e-mail records, the report states.

White House records fall under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which was established to govern and manage the collection and use of many presidential records. By law, messages sent and received through White House e-mail accounts are stored, archived and preserved. The White House has said that the outside e-mail accounts were used for political communications that would not have been permissible under federal law using the official White House e-mail system.

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from being involved in political activities through their workplaces.

The House Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), asked the RNC in April to produce specific e-mails that were sent through its e-mail systems.

"At this point in the investigation, it is not possible to determine precisely how many presidential records may have been destroyed by the RNC," the report stated. "Given the heavy reliance by White House officials on RNC e-mail accounts, the high rank of the White House officials involved, and the large quantity of missing e-mails, the potential violation of the Presidential Records Act may be extensive."

Calls to the White House, the RNC and to the committee's office seeking comment were not returned today.

The report said several steps should be taken to continue the investigation, including examining the records of other federal agencies to see if they have copies of any of the missing White House e-mails. In addition, the report says, the committee should also delve deeper to learn whether former White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez -- now the U.S. Attorney General -- knew about the use of "political e-mail accounts" by White House staffers and whether he took any action to halt the practice.

The report also said that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform may have to take further action to get details about Bush-Cheney '04 e-mail accounts that were used by White House staffers because it has been unable to get information about the accounts from the re-election committee. The re-election committee did indicate that it provided private e-mail accounts to 11 White House staff members, the report said. 

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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