The White House Email Controversy Heats Up

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The hidden scandal in the administration’s already scandalous purge of eight U.S. Attorneys is the discovery that White House officials have been regularly communicating using nongovernmental email addresses, some of them administered by the Republican National Committee. As we reported a couple weeks ago, this seems a blatant attempt to prevent emails from being archived by the White House computer system and potentially flouts the Presidential Records Act, a law enacted after Watergate to ensure that the papers of presidents and their advisor’s are adequately preserved (and eventually made available to the public).

Now that congressional investigators are turning up the heat on the White House to explain this practice and Henry Waxman has asked the RNC to preserve White House communications archived on its servers, the email controversy is “creating new embarrassment and legal headaches for the White House,” the Los Angeles Times reports. The paper explains that this “back-channel e-mail and paging system, paid for and maintained by the RNC, was designed to avoid charges that had vexed the Clinton White House — that federal resources were being used inappropriately for political campaign purposes.”

Perhaps, but that’s just one part of the story. There’s evidence to suggest that White House officials aren’t simply concerned with separating their political and policy duties. As U.S. News & World Report noted in a brief item in 2004, White House staffers have turned to Web-based email accounts specifically to keep their emails from entering the public record. “I don’t want my E-mail made public,” one White House “insider” told the magazine.

Not only did White House officials think better of using their official emails, they also instructed the lobbyists who did business with them to avoid the White House system. “…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.,” one lobbyist to wrote to Jack Abramoff in August 2003 after Abramoff accidentally pinged former Karl Rove aide Susan Ralston on her White House address. “Dammit. It was sent to Susan on her rnc [Republican National Committee] pager and was not supposed to go into the WH system,” Abramoff replied.

The White House is trying to play down the controversy, spinning the use of outside email addresses as an honest effort to avoid breaching the Hatch Act, which prohibits most federal employees from engaging in political activity on the job. But here’s the thing: Staffers whose salaries are paid from an appropriation for the Executive Office of the President are exempt from certain strictures of that law and are allowed to conduct political business. That is, under most circumstances, White House officials would have no need to use alternate email addresses when talking politics.

Overshadowed by the U.S. Attorney firings, the email controversy has received scant media attention. But it’s the email scandal, with its potential to pull back the curtain on the White House’s political operation and possibly unveil other scandals, that really has the GOP’s teeth chattering. According to the Times:

Some Republicans believe that the huge number of e-mails — many written hastily, with no thought that they might become public — may contain more detailed and unguarded inside information about the administration’s far-flung political activities than has previously been available.

One “GOP activist,” in what seems a vast understatement, told the paper, “There is concern about what may be in these e-mails.”

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