E-Mail Records Intact, White House Aide Says
Presidential Counsel Beth Nolan assured a congressional committee Thursday that copies of thousands of White House e-mail messages that were missing for two years are secure and intact on backup computer tapes but that efforts to restore them will take nearly six months.
Under questioning by skeptical Republicans, Nolan said that the work will be done by an outside contractor who has estimated that the job will take 170 days. At that point, she said, the White House will be able to determine if any of the lost messages are relevant to investigations of the Clinton administration by congressional panels or independent counsels.
“The backup tapes of e-mail records are secure,” Nolan testified. “We have already begun the process that will enable us to search these records, and we will do so as quickly as possible.”
Lawmaker Upset Over Delay in Notification
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, demanded to know why his panel was not immediately notified in June 1998, when the problem was discovered, that e-mails possibly related to Democratic campaign finance abuses had been missing for two years, a subject his committee was investigating. The topic is of continuing interest to Republicans, since activities of Vice President Al Gore figured heavily in that inquiry.
Nolan said that then-White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, her immediate predecessor, “never understood the full extent of the problem” when he learned of the “computer glitch” two years ago. But Ruff and others immediately sought to correct the problem, she said.
“I seriously doubt that explanation,” Burton said, referring to Ruff’s alleged failure to comprehend the scope of the glitch. Yet, Burton and other GOP panel members said that they were not accusing the White House of intentionally causing a breakdown to avoid furnishing documents that had been subpoenaed.
Nolan insisted that the breakdown was unintended but stressed that 7,700 e-mail records dealing with campaign finance found on the computers of individual White House officials had been supplied to Burton’s committee alone. Others were submitted to a Senate committee and to Justice Department investigators in recent years, she said.
‘Not Aware of Scope’ of Errors
Referring to the failure of the White House Automated Records Management System to capture incoming e-mail messages from agencies and people outside the White House, Nolan said: “The counsel’s office had no reason to believe that this error had any effect on its [subpoena] searches. Had it thought otherwise, it would have addressed the problem.”
She added that her office “was not aware of the scope and nature of these errors until recently.”
Burton also protested to Nolan that the Justice Department “is on both sides of this issue,” noting that the department’s campaign finance task force is investigating possible wrongdoing in connection with the missing e-mails, while the Justice Department’s civil division is defending the White House in a civil lawsuit touching on that subject filed by Judicial Watch, a conservative legal foundation. It was in that lawsuit that the e-mail problem first surfaced publicly earlier this month.
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno told reporters Thursday that she will make sure her criminal investigation will not be influenced by department attorneys defending the White House in the Judicial Watch lawsuit.
The criminal inquiry “will be walled off,” Reno said.
She added, however, that she is still reviewing a request from Burton and others that she appoint an outside counsel to investigate the e-mail matter rather than keeping it in the hands of career lawyers within the department.
Burton said he believes that the missing e-mails cover subjects including the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation, the FBI files controversy and the alleged sale of seats on overseas Commerce Department trade missions. But Nolan said she has learned only that the Lewinsky case was involved.
Lewinsky to Currie E-Mails Were Found
She said that a limited test of missing messages ordered by Ruff two years ago found e-mails from Lewinsky to Betty Currie, the president’s personal secretary, and to Ashley Raines, a Lewinsky confidant who worked in the White House office of policy development. But these e-mails duplicated copies already furnished to investigators from the computers of Currie and Raines, Nolan said, leading Ruff to conclude the problem was not a major one.
She denied that any previously undisclosed e-mails relating to the Lewinsky scandal were contained on a computer disk in the White House, as reported this week by the Washington Times.
Elaborating on her prepared testimony of a week ago, Nolan said a separate computer glitch had inadvertently prevented Gore’s office from furnishing additional e-mails on campaign finance in response to subpoenas. She said that about 625 backup tapes will be searched in the coming months to try to recover these messages.
Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.