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Records-Breaking Emails

Bush Administration Dodges Public Oversight

Bush administration officials have gotten creative in their attempts to hide their records from public scrutiny.

President Bush has consistently attempted to weaken the Presidential Records Act, which was intended to open presidential documents to the public after a period of no more than 12 years. In 2001, Bush issued a decree that now allows “former presidents and their heirs to bar the release of documents for almost any reason.” Recent revelations in the Bush administration’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys shed new light on another way the White House has been deliberately evading the PRA — by using political, non-government email addresses to correspond with one another. Since the White House system automatically keeps records of all emails, Bush administration officials — including Karl Rove — are using accounts provided by the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign to dodge public oversight. Unfortunately, after Waxman notified these groups to begin preserving all emails by and from White House officials, administration staffers have started looking for new ways to hide presidential records from public scrutiny.

  • Administration officials have been using political email addresses to evade White House record-keeping requirements. Rove does “about 95 percent” of his emailing using his RNC-based account. Susan Ralston, Rove’s former assistant, used not only an RNC account, but also accounts at georgebush.com and aol.com to communicate White House information with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Emails show that Rove’s deputy, J. Scott Jennings, used a political email address — SJennings@gwb43.com — to help orchestrate the prosecutor purge. Even former President George H.W. Bush said his son, the current president, spurns emailing because the records could be subpoenaed. But the White House email system has been crafted to comply with the PRA. It “automatically copies all messages created by staff and sends them to the White House Office of Records Management for archiving.” By avoiding the White House email system, the Bush administration has raised serious questions about “whether it is taking all necessary steps to maintain presidential records to provide a full accounting of all activities” during Bush’s tenure.
  • By using private email, White House officials are blurring the lines between politics and official White House duties. Ralston invited two lobbyists working for Jack Abramoff to use her RNC email account to avoid “security issues” with the White House email system, writing, “I now have an RNC blackberry which you can use to email me at any time. No security issues like my WH email.” Ralston resigned in Oct. 2006, after receiving tickets to concerts and sporting events from Abramoff and his team. Jennings used his gwb43.com address to push Rove protege and former RNC research director Tim Griffin into place as U.S. attorney in Arkansas. Former deputy to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Kyle Sampson admitted in a December email that Griffin’s appointment was largely political and “important to Harriet [Miers], Karl, etc.” While the Bush administration has repeatedly “denied any political motives” in its prosecutor purge, the repeated use of political accounts for communication casts doubt on this assertion. As RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt noted, “As a matter of course, the RNC provides server space and equipment to certain White House personnel in order to assist them with their political efforts.”
  • Executive privilege may not extend to private email accounts provided by the RNC. The Bush administration has repeatedly invoked executive privilege as a reason to withhold information on the prosecutor purge. But by using outside political email addresses, White House officials have lost the presumption of executive privilege. As The Washington Monthly‘s Kevin Drum noted, staffers “using private accounts specifically to evade legitimate congressional oversight” might lose their claims to executive privilege. If they were “primarily discussing the U.S. Attorney firings on personal and RNC accounts, that implicitly means that they themselves weren’t treating it as the kind of official business that would be protected by executive privilege,” he added.