Yeah, that's the ticket

The White House says it no longer has back-channel e-mail messages Congress wants to see.

Published April 12, 2007 1:19PM (EDT)

From the Jon Lovitz News Desk -- "Yeah, that's the ticket!" -- comes a report that the White House is claiming to have lost an unspecified number of e-mail messages about official government business sent by staffers using Republican National Committee accounts.

According to the White House version of the story, messages in the off-the-book e-mail accounts -- reportedly used by Karl Rove and more than 50 other White House officials -- were automatically deleted after 30 days until 2004. At that point, the White House says, the RNC changed its system so that e-mails from White House staffers wouldn't be deleted automatically. But some e-mails were lost anyway when staffers deleted them on their own, the White House says.

Now, we can't claim to know every last requirement and exception of the Presidential Records Act. But we can be pretty certain that there's nothing in there that gives individual White House employees the freedom to simply delete messages that they don't want preserved for posterity or public view. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel admitted as much in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, saying that the White House "has not done a good enough job overseeing staff using political e-mail accounts to assure compliance with the Presidential Records Act."

The White House has insisted that the separate e-mail system was designed to prevent violations of the Hatch Act when White House officials were involved in political, rather than government, business. But e-mail messages turned over to the congressional investigators looking into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year show that White House officials used the accounts for what was -- or at least should have been -- plainly government business, including the process of locating documents and setting up meetings in the course of making the firing decisions.

Stanzel told reporters Wednesday that White House officials may have used the RNC system for official government business out of an overabundance of caution about the Hatch Act or simply because the RNC system was easier to use. The excuse reminds me of something George W. Bush once said -- life would be "a heck of a lot easier" if he were "the dictator" -- but it reminds Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy of something else: "This sounds like the administration's version of the dog ate my homework," he said Wednesday. "I am deeply disturbed that just when this administration is finally subjected to meaningful oversight, it cannot produce the necessary information."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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