An e-mail connection to White House wrongdoing?

A Congressional probe issues a preliminary report--and Internet attorney Eric J. Sinrod finds it to be a page turner.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor
The House Oversight Committee has been investigating whether White House officials violated the Presidential Records Act by using e-mail accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee and the Bush Cheney '04 campaign.

Investigators first learned that White House officials might be using RNC e-mail accounts to avoid creating a record of official communications during the Oversight Committee's inquiry last year into White House contacts with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The committee recently issued its interim staff report, and its preliminary findings are worthy of consideration.

The highlights include the following:

• The number of White House officials provided with RNC e-mail accounts was higher than previously disclosed. Indeed, while in March 2007 a White House representative stated that only a handful of officials had RNC e-mail accounts, the committee learned from the RNC that at least 88 White House officials had such accounts.

• White House officials made extensive use of their RNC e-mail accounts. For example, the RNC has preserved 140,216 e-mails sent or received by presidential adviser Karl Rove; more than half of these e-mails, 75,374 to be exact, were sent to or received from individuals using official .gov e-mail accounts.

While the president wields power, such power cannot be wielded in secret and in violation of the Presidential Records Act.

• There has been extensive destruction of e-mails of White House officials by the RNC. The report sets forth that of the 88 White House officials who obtained RNC e-mails accounts, the RNC failed to preserve e-mails for as many as 51 of these officials. To top this off, the report summarizes that there were major gaps in the e-mail records of the 37 White House officials for whom the RNC did preserve e-mails.

As if this weren't enough, the report concludes that there is evidence that the Office of the White House Counsel under Alberto Gonazales may have known that White House officials were using RNC e-mail accounts for official business but did not take any action to preserve these presidential records.

The Presidential Records Act requires the president to "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 maintained as presidential records."

Given the findings reflected above, not surprisingly, the committee concludes that evidence indicates White House officials used their RNC e-mail accounts to get around these requirements. This is a problem. Presidential records must be maintained as a matter of law and as a way for the American public to truly know what the president is up to.

Yet, here, it is not even possible to determine at this point "precisely how many presidential records may have been destroyed by the RNC," according to the committee, and "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."

The committee now recommends that the records of federal agencies should be examined to assess whether they may contain some of the White House e-mails destroyed by the RNC.

Also, it wants a review to determine whether Gonzales knew about the use of political e-mail accounts by White House officials. There may need to be a compulsory process to obtain the cooperation of the campaign, which so far has refused to provide the committee with basic information about e-mail accounts it provided to 11 White House officials.

While the president wields power, such power cannot be wielded in secret and in violation of the Presidential Records Act. The Oversight Committee should continue its investigation to determine finally whether that indeed happened.

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