On February 6, 2003, lobbyist Jack Abramoff sent an email to his former executive assistant Susan Ralston, who had since gone on to work for Karl Rove, requesting that she pass along an important message to her boss. A Louisiana Indian tribe, the Jena band of Choctaws, was seeking to acquire land for a casino, a project at odds with the interests of Abramoff's tribal clients who feared it would siphon business from their own gaming establishments. Abramoff wanted Rove to intercede and "to get some quiet message from the WH [White House] that this is absurd." After Ralston agreed to pass along word, Abramoff replied to thank her. But he slipped up.
Instead of responding to an email account administered by the Republican National Committee (firstname.lastname@example.org) as he had intended, he sent the message to Ralston's White House address. The following day Abramoff was alerted to his error by a colleague, Kevin Ring, who'd spoken to a White House official to whom Abramoff's request had been forwarded. "She said it is better to not 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.," Ring wrote. Abramoff responded swiftly: "Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc [Republican National Committee] pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system."
The significance of this intriguing exchange, which was among thousands of emails reviewed by investigators for the House Government Reform Committee as part of an extensive investigation into Abramoff, might have gone unrecognized had it not been for another scandal, this one involving the abrupt firings of eight U.S. Attorneys. As the controversy intensified in early March and hearings were held, the Department of Justice was forced to release thousands of documents, including email exchanges between Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff Kyle Sampson, who resigned in mid-March, and Rove deputy J. Scott Jennings.
Here too was evidence that White House officials were conducting business using RNC email accounts, domains such as gwb43.com and rnchq.org. But why? For one, as Abramoff was attempting to do, it is a way of bypassing the White House server and skirting its automatic archiving function, insuring that potentially damaging or incriminating emails will not be preserved for posterity by the National Archives, or worse, come to light through the efforts of a federal prosecutor or congressional investigator. In a March 15 letter to Henry Waxman's Government Reform Committee, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington noted that this practice might violate the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which governs how the papers of presidents and their staffs are to be preserved, and urged an investigation. "This refreshed our memory about what we'd seen in the Abramoff emails," says one Waxman aide.
A little over a week later, Waxman's Committee fired off its own letters to Mike Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Marc Racicot, the former chair of the president's reelection committee, demanding that they preserve White House emails on their organization's servers "because of their potential relevance to congressional investigations""multiple" investigations the letter stressed. "The e-mail exchanges reviewed by the Committee provide evidence that in some instances, White House officials were using the nongovernmental accounts specifically to avoid creating a record of the communications." (According to the Waxman aide, Duncan and Racicot have yet to respond.)
Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy, says the use of RNC email accounts is interesting for another reason. "It shows how closely intertwined the White House is with its partisan allies," he says. "The fact that the White House and the RNC are working hand in hand and White House officials are using RNC emails is itself remarkable." He added, "Iran-Contra is getting invoked a lot these days and this may be another parallel, where the famous White House emails were recovered even after they were deleted from the White House server. People may have learned that lesson."
Oliver North certainly did. Back in 1986, when most people had not even heard of email and the government's email system was still known as PROFS (Professional Office System), he and John Poindexter attempted to purge their hard drives of electronic communications related to Iran-Contra. ("We all sincerely believed that when we send a PROFS message to another party and pressed the button 'delete' that it was gone forever. Wow, were we wrong," North later remarked after his incriminating messages were resurrected.)
In 1993 then-National Archivist Don Wilson inked a secret agreement with George H.W. Bush in the final hours of his presidency giving him sole control over his administration's computer records. (Wilson went on to become the executive director of Bush's presidential library; a federal court later declared their agreement unconstitutional.) Years later, with the embattled Clinton administration faced with numerous allegations of impropriety, including charges that it had illegally obtained FBI files on prominent Republicans for political purposesthis controversy became known as Filegatea White House whistleblower came forward claiming that the administration had suppressed 100,000 emails related to ongoing investigations. Sheryl Hall, who helped to supervise the computer system in the Clinton White House, reported being told by a colleague that "if the contents of these e-mails became known, that there would be different outcomes to these scandals, as the e-mails were incriminating and could cause people to go to jail." Congressional Republicans, then in the majority, cast the alleged cover-up as a worse scandal than Watergate, concluding in a report by the House Government Reform Committee that "the e-mail matter can fairly be called the most significant obstruction of congressional investigations in U.S. history." (Democrats, led by Henry Waxman, fired back with their own report, which noted, among other things, that "this Committee has a long history of making unsubstantiated allegations.")
In general, past administrations, Democratic and Republican, have chafed at the prospect of turning over their records, per the Presidential Records Act, says Bruce Montgomery, the director of the University of Colorado at Boulder's archives and an expert on presidential papers. "No president since Carter, who signed the Presidential Records Act into law, has looked kindly on that statute. Carter did not want the Presidential Records Act to apply to him. The Carter Justice Department saw it as a breach of the separation of powers." In 1985, a young lawyer working in the Reagan White House questioned the constitutionality of the law in a memo to his boss, White House counsel Fred Fielding, who is currently reprising that role in the Bush administration. That lawyer, John Glover Roberts Jr., who we know as Chief Justice Roberts, noted that the "existence of the Act serves to burden the full and frank exchange of advice." That advice, he argued, "is protected by the constitutionally based doctrine of executive privilege." He fretted, however, that it was too early to mount a constitutional challenge. That would have to wait until 2001, when, after the 12-year waiting period outlined in the law, the first batch of Reagan-era documents would be released.