White House Faces Questions About Private Email Accounts, Missing Messages

White House officials are scrambling to explain the disappearance of email documents related to the controversy surrounding the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Also at issue is the alleged use of private email accounts by White House staff to conduct governmental business, a practice that is clearly illegal under the Presidential Records Act.

Bush Administration officials have said that more than 20 White House aides including Karl Rove, the president’s chief political advisor have been using private email accounts provided by the Republican National Committee (RNC). Their explanation is that the private accounts were created in order to avoid violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of official government email accounts for “political” work, such as campaigns. However, mounting evidence suggests that the private accounts were often being used for official government business, perhaps in an intentional attempt to circumvent the very oversight that the Presidential Records Act is supposed to ensure.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has been among the most outspoken of the White House’s many critics. “This sounds like the administration’s version of the dog ate my homework,” said Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I am deeply disturbed that just when this administration is finally subjected to meaningful oversight, it cannot produce the necessary information.”

For its part, the White House has made two startling admissions: First, they have acknowledged improper use of private email accounts to conduct official government business, although they have also said that the use was not an attempt to hide its correspondence from the public. Secondly, they have admitted that many sensitive emails transmitted on the private accounts including, potentially, documents about the attorney firings–may have been lost. Sen. Leahy said flatly that he simply doesn’t believe that emails can be so easily lost in this day and age, and he intends to issue subpoenas to unearth them if the White House doesn’t voluntarily comply. While the White House has announced a “comprehensive review” of its internal communications practices, it seems likely that Congress will be very interested in pursuing its own review.

The U.S. attorney controversy has become a Pandora’s Box of scandal for the Bush White House and its allies in the federal government. Originally, the Justice Department was accused of firing U.S. attorneys for overtly political reasons. Then, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and several of his aides were caught making contradictory statements about the rationale behind the firings as well as about the direct involvement of both Gonzales and White House staff members. Now, a new scandal is rapidly emerging about the use of private RNC accounts to conduct official business outside the scope of public monitoring. It makes one wonder what will be revealed next.

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