Private White House e-mail system arouses Democrats' suspicions

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
2 min read

Since President Bush's early days in office, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and other senior White House officials have been communicating through a "back-channel" e-mail system funded by the Republican National Committee--and may be violating federal rules in the process, the Los Angeles Times reports (registration required).

The goal behind the RNC-financed laptops, BlackBerries and other communications devices, which are reportedly assigned to Rove's office and others high up in the White House ranks, was to stave off accusations that taxpayer-financed equipment was being used for campaigning, the L.A. Times story said.

But now Democrats in Congress are concerned that the system is being used for far more than just strategic campaign-related chatter. They suspect that its users are managing to skirt federal laws that are supposed to ensure records of communications about official government business can be reviewed by congressional committees.

E-mails shuttled by non-governmental servers have already turned up in White House correspondence related to the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff and have surfaced again as part of a more recent probe related to the firing of U.S. attorneys, according to recent letters sent to a Bush-Cheney '04 campaign head and RNC officials by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Waxman, the chairman of a key House of Representatives government oversight panel, asked the officials to provide assurances that no e-mails involving official White House business have been purged. He also directed them to preserve "all e-mails sent or received by White House officials using e-mail accounts under your control."

It's unclear exactly how unusual the set-up is. Clinton Administration officials interviewed by the Times said a handful of its personnel made use of a small-scale separate system for campaign-related matters but said the Bush Administration's actions appeared to be far broader.

But the former president nonetheless found himself in hot water in 2000 over reports that computer glitches prevented thousands of e-mails, including messages concerning the infamous former intern Monica Lewinsky, from being handed over in response to a congressional subpoena. After several months of delay, however, the then-Democratic White House was able to begin copying back-up tapes of the messages.