White House Use of Outside Email Accts. Questioned
White House Use of Outside Email Accounts Questioned
By Jason Leopold and Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report
Monday 26 March 2007
Emails released by the Department of Justice over the past two weeks in conjunction with a Congressional investigation into the firings of eight US attorneys show that White House officials have communicated with DOJ staffers about the attorney purge, using email accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee in possible violation of the Presidential Records Act.
Using alternative email accounts also creates the appearance of impropriety, lawmakers charged Monday, because it allows White House officials to avoid the usual archival process and the automatic paper trail that is established when they use White House email servers to conduct business. Emails sent through the RNC server can be destroyed.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 states that the records of a president, his immediate staff, and specific areas of the Executive Office of the President belong to the United States, not to the individual president or his staff. The act further states that the president must "take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are maintained as presidential records pursuant to the requirements of this section and other provisions of law."
In letters sent Monday to the RNC and the Bush/Cheney 2004 Campaign, Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, urged the two groups to preserve all emails sent by White House officials from their servers because of their relevance to Congressional probes, including the US attorney scandal.
Waxman added that his committee "has questions about who has access to these email records and how the campaign protects them from destruction or tampering," according to the letters he sent to the RNC and the Bush/Cheney 2004 Campaign.
"Such emails written in the conduct of White House business would appear to be governmental records subject to preservation and eventual public disclosure," Waxman wrote.
Documents released Friday by the Justice Department to a Congressional committee probing the US attorney firings show that J. Scott Jennings, special assistant to President Bush and deputy director for political affairs, used an email@example.com email account to query a DOJ official about the pending US attorney vacancies.
"Does a list of vacant, or about-to-be-vacant, US attorney slots exist anywhere?" Jennings wrote in a December 3, 2006 email to Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales is said to have orchestrated the firings of eight US attorneys in what appears to be a politically motivated plot. Jennings' immediate boss is Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff, who, according to a report Friday in the National Journal, conducts 95 percent of White House business using an email account maintained by the RNC.
"My office. Want me to sent [sic] to you tomorrow?" Sampson replied to Jennings' private firstname.lastname@example.org account. Four days after the email was sent, the DOJ fired seven US attorneys under a plan that had been in the making for more than two years and was executed with the knowledge of White House officials, including Rove and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers - both of whom have been asked to testify under oath before Congress about the firings, whether the action was politically motivated, and the roles they played in the scandal.
Waxman said the Oversight Committee first discovered administration officials were using nongovernmental email accounts during its investigation into disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his contacts with the White House.
"That investigation found that many of the email exchanges between Jack Abramoff and White House officials were conducted via nongovernmental email accounts," Waxman said in his letters to the RNC and the Bush/Cheney 2004 Campaign. "In at least one case, the emails indicate that these nonofficial accounts were being used because 'to put this stuff in writing in their [sic] email system ... might actually limit what they can do to help us.' The Abramoff investigation found that in multiple instances, Susan Ralston, Karl Rove's executive assistant, exchanged emails with Jack Abramoff regarding official government business while using accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee and the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign."
Furthermore, Waxman said, "the investigation also found that Barry Jackson, deputy assistant to the president and deputy to the senior adviser, used a "georgewbush.com" email account to communicate with Neil Volz, an Abramoff associate who has been convicted of public corruption charges."
Waxman said that in certain cases White House officials were using alternative email accounts to avoid creating an automatic paper trail of their communications about hot-button political issues.
"In one case, Mr. Abramoff sent Ms. Ralston an email on her RNC account asking her to 'pass on to Karl that Interior is about to approve a gaming compact ... for a tribe which is an anathema to all our supporters'" and requesting "some quiet message from WH that this is absurd," Waxman wrote, quoting from the Ralston and Abramoff email exchange. "This email was forwarded to Jennifer Farley in the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, who apparently then warned one of Abramoff s associates about the dangers of leaving a record of their communications. According to an email Mr. Abramoff received from his associate Kevin Ring: Your email to Susan was forwarded to Ruben Barrales and on to Jen Farley, who read it to me last night. I don't know what to think about this, but she said it is better not to put this stuff in writing in their email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc. ... Just letting you know what she said.'"
Abramoff responded to that exchange, according to Waxman, writing in an email, "Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system."
Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the use of outside email accounts by White House officials "could constitute a breach of the Presidential Archives Act."
Moreover, using outside servers could also be a threat to national security, Weismann said.
"Federal servers are protected with the best security available; outside servers are probably not nearly as secure," she said, meaning that it could be very easy to hack into the servers and read the emails.
Weismann said President Bush's refusal to turn over communications between his staff and the DOJ regarding the US attorney firings, citing executive privilege, does not include domains and servers operated by the RNC.
"Waxman was very shrewd in contacting the RNC because the president cannot claim executive privilege for emails on their server," Weismann said.
Matt Renner is a reporter and radio producer and a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley.
Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles
bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over
2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received
the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his
coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in
2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall
and was the first journalist to land an interview with
former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's
bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on
CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy
and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen
energy industry conferences around the