The White House said Wednesday that it may have lost what could amount to thousands of messages sent through a private e-mail system used by political guru Karl Rove and at least 50 other top officials, an admission that stirred anger and dismay among congressional investigators.
The e-mails were considered potentially crucial evidence in congressional inquiries launched by Democrats into the role partisan politics may have played in such policy decisions as the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
The White House said an effort was underway to see whether the messages could be recovered from the computer system, which was operated and paid for by the Republican National Committee as part of an avowed effort to separate political communications from those dealing with official business.
"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," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said in an unusual late-afternoon teleconference with reporters.
As a result, Stanzel said, "we may not have preserved all e-mails that deal with White House business."
He refused to estimate how many e-mails may have been lost, but the system was used by dozens of officials for more than six years.
"This is a remarkable admission that raises serious legal and security issues," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the role of electoral politics in administration policymaking. "The White House has an obligation to disclose all the information it has."
The missing e-mails not only add to the growing legal and public relations woes for the White House and Rove's political operation, but also to the problems of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. Gonzales, who is under fire for the handling of the U.S. attorney dismissals, was serving as White House counsel at the time the Republican National Committee's parallel communications system was set up.
His office had at least partial responsibility for establishing ground rules for using the private system.
The White House briefing Wednesday occurred a few hours after the staff of Waxman's committee and staff of the House Judiciary Committee met with White House officials to discuss the e-mails.
The White House has informed congressional investigators that it will not be able to meet the committee's deadline of Friday to turn over the communications.
The House aides are expected to meet with the Republican National Committee's legal staff today. A committee spokesman said the GOP hopes to cooperate as much as possible but provided no further details.
The e-mails were sent through a communications system created in conjunction with the RNC early in the Bush administration. Rove and others were given special laptop computers and other communications devices to use instead of the government communications system when dealing with political matters.
The parallel system was designed to avoid running afoul of the Hatch Act, which prohibits using government resources for partisan purposes, White House officials have said.
But evidence has emerged that system users sometimes failed to maintain such separation and used the private system when communicating about government business.
For example, before the U.S. attorneys were fired, a Rove deputy used an account maintained by the Republican National Committee in discussions with Justice Department officials about replacing some of the regional prosecutors. One e-mail requested a meeting between top officials at the Justice Department and a member of President Bush's campaign team to discuss one U.S. attorney who was among those to be fired.
The Justice Department turned over those e-mails at the request of several congressional committees.
Waxman said some of the documents suggest White House personnel may have used the political email accounts "to avoid creating a record of the communications."
Loss of the e-mail files would create a potential legal problem for the Bush White House: compliance with the Presidential Records Act, which was passed in 1978 in response to the Watergate scandal that enveloped Richard M. Nixon's presidency. The law was designed to ensure that presidential papers were preserved for historical and investigative purposes.
Rove's operation appears to have gone much further. Today, 22 staffers have e-mail accounts issued by the Republican National Committee, Stanzel said, noting that it is a tiny percentage of the 1,000 political appointees in the executive office.
Since 2001, about 50 staffers e-mailed using the system, he said. One former White House staffer told National Journal recently that Rove uses his RNC e-mail account for 95% of his e-mail communications.
One former White House official, Assistant Press Secretary Adam Levine, told The Times that he was issued a private laptop computer but he found the dual system so cumbersome that he decided to use only his official White House computer.
However, Levine recalled seeing White House staff members moving fluidly between their official computers and the laptops provided by the RNC.
Stanzel said that the law has gray areas defining what sort of activity is permitted using government resources, and that some employees may have opted for the RNC system to avoid any suggestion of a Hatch Act breach or because the private equipment was easier to use.
But, he added, "I can say that historically the White House didn't give enough guidance to staff on how to avoid violating the Hatch Act while following the Records Act. We didn't do a good enough job."
Some former employees recall receiving briefings on the Hatch Act. At the time of the 2004 Republican convention, newspaper accounts described emphatic warnings to White House staffers not to use government-issued cellphones for politically related calls.
Now, Stanzel said, the White House has begun a formal review that will include new training material for staff members on maintaining records with special attention to those with RNC accounts.
In addition, the White House will begin the forensic process of trying to reconstruct any lost records. That will probably be hampered by an RNC policy of automatically erasing most e-mail after 30 days. Since 2004, White House records have been exempt, Stanzel said, though individuals might have been able to kill out e-mail messages.
The White House will also explore whether the hard drives of laptop computers might have preserved a record of e-mailed communications.