WASHINGTON—When Karl Rove and his top deputies arrived at the White House in 2001, the Republican National Committee provided them with laptop computers and other communication devices to be used alongside their government-issued equipment.
The 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.
FOR THE RECORDWhite House e-mail: An article in Monday's Section A on White House use of a private e-mail system incorrectly attributed to Scott Jennings, a deputy to senior advisor Karl Rove, an e-mail on that system saying, "We're a go for the U.S. atty plan. WH leg, political and communications have signed off and acknowledged that we have to be committed to following through once the pressure comes." The e-mail was written by Deputy White House Counsel William Kelley using a White House e-mail account.
Now, that dual computer system is creating new embarrassment and legal headaches for the White House, the Republican Party and Rove's once-vaunted White House operation.
Democrats say evidence suggests the RNC e-mail system was used for political and government policy matters in violation of federal record preservation and disclosure rules.
In addition, Democrats point to a handful of e-mails obtained through ongoing inquiries suggesting the system may have been used to conceal such activities as contacts with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted on bribery charges and is now in prison for fraud.
Democratic congressional investigators are beginning to demand access to this RNC-White House communications system, which was used not only by Rove's office but by several top officials elsewhere in the White House.
The prospect that such communication might become public has further jangled the nerves of an already rattled Bush White House.
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.
"There is concern about what may be in these e-mails," said one GOP activist who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.
"The system was created with the best intentions," said former Assistant White House Press Secretary Adam Levine, who was assigned an RNC laptop and BlackBerry when he worked at the White House in 2002. But, he added, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, last week formally requested access to broad categories of RNC-White House e-mails.
Waxman told the Los Angeles Times in a statement that a separate "e-mail system for high-ranking White House officials would raise serious questions about violations of the Presidential Records Act," which requires the preservation and ultimate disclosure of e-mails about official government business.
Waxman's initial request to the RNC seeks e-mails relating to the presentation of campaign polling and strategy information to Cabinet agency appointees. He is also expected to ask for e-mails relating to Abramoff's activities, which Waxman is also investigating.
The Senate and House Judiciary Committees are also expected to formally request e-mail records from the RNC that relate to last year's firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
The private e-mail system came to light in the U.S. attorney controversy because one of Rove's deputies used an RNC-maintained e-mail domain -- gwb43.com -- to communicate with the Justice Department about replacing one of those prosecutors.
White House officials said the system had been used appropriately and was modeled after one used by the Clinton White House political office in the late 1990s.
"The regular staffers who interface with political organizations have a separate e-mail account, and that's entirely appropriate," said White House spokesman Scott M. Stanzel. "The practice is followed to avoid inadvertent violations of the law."