Karl Rove and other White House employees were cautioned in employee manuals, memos and briefings to carefully save any e-mails that might discuss official matters even if those messages came from private e-mail accounts, the White House disclosed Friday.
Despite these cautions, e-mails from Rove and others discussing official business may have been deleted and are now missing.
White House officials spent much of Friday reiterating that the missing e-mails were the result of an innocent mistake. About 50 aides in the executive office of the Bush administration have used e-mail accounts provided by the Republican National Committee to keep campaign-related communication separate from their official White House business.
However, some of those RNC accounts were used to discuss official matters, including the firing of eight federal prosecutors, which has triggered investigations on Capitol Hill. Democrats contend that politics was improperly inserted into Justice Department decision-making about which attorneys should leave.
Though official White House e-mail is automatically preserved in accord with the Presidential Records Act, e-mail that was used by the employees with RNC accounts was not always saved. White House officials this week said the lost e-mails resulted from a failure to clearly communicate Presidential Records Act rules to staffers and to see that the rules were followed.
“That is a mistake the White House is aggressively working to fix,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said earlier in the week.
The White House has recently provided guidance to each of the 22 staffers who currently have RNC e-mail accounts. Each person receiving such an account is required to sign a statement acknowledging that he understands the rules.
White House employee manuals distributed in early 2001 made it clear that any e-mails containing discussion of official matters should be preserved.
Redacted copies of White House employee manuals were shown to reporters late Friday at the White House press office on condition that they not be removed from the premises.
The documents included a memorandum from then-White House General Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, who is now attorney general, cautioning employees that “any e-mail relating to official business ... qualifies as a presidential record.”
The instructions dwell on the importance of separating political from official acts. But they also explain that all e-mail sent “to your official account is automatically archived as if it were a presidential record.” The manual adds: “If you happen to receive an e-mail on a personal account which otherwise qualifies as a presidential record, it is your duty to insure that it is saved as such by printing it out and saving it or by forwarding it to your White House e-mail account,” the manual said.
The manual was updated and expanded through the years, and the most recent iteration dwells on preserving official records. Despite the instructions, many employees did not save their e-mails, creating the latest controversy to dog the Bush White House.
Democrats have suggested Rove and others may have deliberately deleted e-mails from his RNC account, which he used heavily.
Rove’s lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, denied any attempt to evade record-keeping rules, telling the Associated Press on Friday that Rove’s “understanding starting very, very early in the administration was that those e-mails were being archived.”
But Robert K. Kelner, a lawyer for the RNC, said in an interview with The Times that the RNC had a policy of automatically deleting e-mails through middle or late 2004 and that there was not an understanding that White House-generated documents would be preserved.
“The RNC is not directed by law to administer the Presidential Records Act,” Kelner said. “That’s an authority given to the president. The treatment of these e-mail accounts by the RNC has been based on the RNC’s own internal document preservation policies.”