Congress continues probe into missing e-mails

Despite urging from House Democrats, the administration has yet to collect server backup tapes from the Republican National Committee for an investigation into whether government business was conducted from members' e-mail accounts and improperly preserved. Bipartisan lawmakers debated the merits of digging up such information at a hearing Tuesday.

The squabble between Democrats and Republicans occurred during a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the preservation of electronic records by the White House, which has been under fire since a 2005 analysis identified more than 700 days in which e-mail records were either unrealistically low in number, or nonexistent. Lawmakers also have raised questions about high-ranking administration officials using RNC e-mail accounts to potentially conduct government business. The 1978 Presidential Records Act requires that such electronic documents be archived, but the RNC reported that it did not preserve any e-mails for more than 50 officials, and saved few e-mails for 30 other officials before fall 2006.

Theresa Payton, chief information officer for the White House's Office of Administration, reiterated previous claims that backups for all e-mails missing from the White House systems should exist, but that she wouldn't know for sure until a full analysis was completed. Payton said that while a re-inventory is nearly finished, more than 17 million e-mails are not attributed to specific "components," such as individual e-mail accounts. She estimated the cost of the entire project will reach $15 million or more.

Payton said the investigation into missing RNC e-mails is not part of the analysis because it is outside the jurisdiction of the Executive Office of the President. The White House has made no effort to acquire any RNC backup tapes.

"The White House has the responsibility to preserve e-mails, and if some of those are at RNC, the White House has the responsibility to get them," Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said, pointing out that then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove used his RNC account to send more than 95 percent of e-mails between 2001 and 2003 -- during the same period that the administration was making a case for invading Iraq. "It looks like the White House has done nothing [to track down these e-mails]," Waxman said.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., ranking member on the House Government Reform panel, recommended that the Office of Administration release some "hard and fast rules" that outline guidelines for preserving electronic records created on nongovernment systems.

Other House Republicans argued amid testimony that Congress should not assume e-mails sent from RNC accounts involved government business, arguing that the messages could have been of a political nature -- such as campaign strategies -- and therefore not legally permitted on government systems under the 1939 Hatch Act. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said evidence of presidential records on the RNC's systems should be present before Congress demands the backup tapes. "Do any of you know of inappropriate activity? [Or] is this a fishing expedition?"

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