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Leopold: Investigators Eye Broader WH Email Trail

Investigators Eye Broader White House Email Trail

By Jason Leopold
t r u t h o u t | Report

Thursday 05 April 2007

Last week, Justice Department documents turned over to a Congressional committee investigating circumstances behind the selective firing of seven US attorneys revealed that some Bush administration officials have primarily used email accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee to conduct official White House business. This appears to be a violation of the Presidential Records Act.

The revelation that White House staffers used outside email accounts to conduct administration business comes on the heels of a report in the National Journal alleging that Karl Rove uses an RNC email address to conduct a majority of his duties as White House political adviser.

Now Congressional investigators are taking a second look at public corruption cases it closed the books on. They'll try to determine if current and former White House officials were more deeply involved in scandals than previously known, and if so, whether administration officials used outside email accounts to cover up their involvement in cronyism or other malfeasance.

Congressman Henry Waxman (D-California), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, intends to get to the bottom of the issue.

Citing Congress' investigation of White House contacts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff as an example of apparent misuse of outside email accounts, Waxman is seeking the deposition of Susan Ralston regarding communication she had via email with Abramoff. Ralston is a former assistant to White House political adviser Karl Rove. The questioned emails between Ralston and Abramoff concerned official White House business conducted through Ralston's RNC email address, according to documents released by Waxman's committee.

Ralston, who was also an assistant to Abramoff prior to her tenure at the White House, told the lobbyist to contact her through her RNC email address concerning specific favors he requested from the White House on behalf of his clients, so as to avoid leaving an automatic paper trail that is established when White House email servers are used. Ralston hasn't yet responded to Waxman's request.

In letters sent last week to the RNC and the Bush/Cheney 2004 Campaign, Congressman Waxman 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.

"I am writing about email records in the possession of the Republican National Committee. Congressional investigations have revealed that White House officials have used nongovernmental email accounts, including those maintained by the RNC, to conduct official White House business," Waxman's letter states. "The Committee has questions about who has access to these email 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."

Waxman added that emails released by the Justice Department in connection with the US attorney probe appeared to demonstrate that White House officials were using their RNC email accounts to circumvent the archives system.

That statement has a familiar ring to it.

In a story first reported by Truthout last year, in a federal court document filed in January 2006 in US District Court in Washington, DC, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald revealed that his investigative team "learned that not all email 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 on the White House computer system." That document was filed during the discovery phase of the perjury and obstruction of justice trial against former vice presidential staffer I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Less than two weeks after Fitzgerald revealed that emails from the White House were missing, 250 pages of emails from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney's office were turned over to investigators working for the special prosecutor - more than two years after the investigation began.

The White House offered no official explanation concerning the circumstances regarding the sudden reappearance of the emails it turned over to Fitzgerald on February 6, 2006 or if there was any truth to Fitzgerald's allegations that the emails were not automatically archived. At the time, a White House spokeswoman would only say that staffers "discovered" the batch of documents during a search.

A number of theories emerged at the time in an attempt to explain why the emails were not preserved. Media reports settled on the idea that White House computers simply broke down and failed to archive the emails.

However, Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' government secrecy project, said in an interview with the Associated Press last year that the reason the White House offered to explain how the emails went missing "invites suspicion."

"Bottom line: Accidents happen and there could be a benign explanation, but this is highly irregular and invites suspicion," Aftergood said. "A particular subset of records sought in a controversial prosecution have gone missing. I think what is needed is for the national archivist to ascertain what went wrong and how to ensure it won't happen again."

A spokesperson for the National Archives did not return calls for comment.

Fitzgerald's office would not comment on specific evidence in the case. A spokeswoman for Libby's defense attorney, Theodore Wells, said Wells would not address whether the emails he received during discovery contained RNC email addresses because Wells is preparing to file an appeal on behalf of his client. In February, a jury found Libby guilty of obstruction of justice and perjury.

However, the revelation that administration officials used their RNC email accounts to keep tabs on the US attorney purge raises questions about whether emails in the Plame leak investigation were truly lost due to a computer failure or if they were actually sent by White House officials through the RNC servers.

In the US attorney case, Rove's deputy and special assistant to the president, J. Scott Jennings, used an email address maintained by the RNC to query a Justice Department official in December about the timing of the firings, which left some members of Congress with the impression that Jennings was attempting to conceal White House involvement in the matter.

The RNC, for its part, was heavily involved in the campaign that White House officials, including Karl Rove, undertook to discredit Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who accused the Bush administration of "twisting" intelligence to win support for the Iraq war.

The committee issued a set of "talking points" to reporters in July 2005, attacking Wilson and claiming that Rove was the victim of a "partisan attack." At the time, Rove was identified as one of the officials who leaked Plame's identity,

The RNC would not respond to questions about Rove or other White House officials who came under scrutiny in the Plame leak, or whether those staffers used RNC accounts to discuss the case and as a result withheld evidence from the special prosecutor during the height of the probe.

However, that scenario would certainly explain why Fitzgerald did not find a crucial email Rove sent to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley on July 11, 2003 that proved Rove was far more involved in the Plame controversy than he had let on during an appearance before a grand jury and in interviews with FBI investigators in the fall of 2003.

FBI investigators obtained more than 10,000 pages of documents and emails from administration officials during the course of their investigation into the leak, but absent from the mountain of evidence was the July 11 email Rove sent to Hadley, saying he had a conversation with former Time reporter Matthew Cooper about Wilson.

The conversation between Rove and Cooper took place before Robert Novak unmasked the covert CIA operative in a newspaper column on July 14, 2003. However, for nearly two years, Rove maintained that the first time he knew Plame worked for the CIA was when he read about it in Novak's report. Only after the story was published, Rove testified, did he discuss Plame with other reporters.

However, in 2005, as Fitzgerald applied pressure to Cooper to testify about the identity of the source who told him that Plame worked for the CIA, Rove's attorney Robert Luskin made a startling discovery: he found the email Rove sent Hadley and turned it over to Fitzgerald.

The Washington Post, citing an unnamed source, reported that Rove sent the email to Hadley from his government account and said it was "unclear" why the email did not turn up during a search in 2003.

According to a report in Newsweek, FBI investigators did not initially find the email Rove sent to Hadley because "the right search words weren't used" two years ago, an explanation that seems highly unlikely.

But if the National Journal story published two weeks ago is true, there is a 95 percent chance that the email was actually sent from Rove's RNC email address.

While the communication between Rove and Hadley does not cover official White House business, and therefore it may not be improper if Rove did in fact send it from his RNC account, it still raises questions about whether Fitzgerald successfully secured all of the evidence related to Rove's involvement in the leak.

Moreover, it raises questions about whether the RNC purged incriminating emails Rove sent from the committee's server regarding his prior knowledge of Plame's identity. It also leaves unresolved whether Rove knowingly withheld the email from investigators during early stages of the probe that centered primarily on securing emails from the White House server.

According to a report published last week in PC World, White House spokesman David Almacy said setting up outside email accounts through the RNC for certain administration staffers was cleared by White House attorneys.

The RNC email accounts "allow legitimate political activities to be conducted by appropriate staff members without using White House accounts, which would be illegal under the Hatch Act. "It was specifically set up that way so that people weren't using their official accounts for political activities," he said. Only certain White House staff members have such outside accounts, including those who regularly communicate with outside political groups," Almacy told PC world.


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 country.

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