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White House staff e-mail use investigated

WASHINGTON""The widespread use of private e-mail accounts by some top White House officials is sparking a congressional probe into the practice and whether it violates a post-Nixon law requiring that White House deliberations be documented.

A top Democratic lawmaker says outside e-mail accounts were used in an attempt to avoid scrutiny; the White House says their purpose was to avoid using government resources for political activities, although they were used to discuss the firing of U.S. attorneys.

Last year, Scott Jennings, an aide in the White House political affairs office, used an account he had set up at the Republican National Committee instead of his official White House account to help plan the firings of eight U.S. attorneys who had run afoul of the administration. A copy of that e-mail, among others, has surfaced in the subsequent flap over those firings.

In January, White House officials used another RNC e-mail account to send Bush appointees a PowerPoint presentation on Democrats they were targeting for defeat in the 2008 elections. The presentation "is a close hold and we're not supposed to be e-mailing it around," an official wrote in the e-mail.

Susan Ralston, until recently presidential adviser Karl Rove's assistant at the White House, appears to have used at least four outside e-mail accounts: a "gwb" domain account, a "georgewbush.com" account, and an "rnchq.org" account""all run by the RNC""plus an AOL account. She once e-mailed two associates of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, "I now have an RNC blackberry which you can use to e-mail me at any time. No security issues like my WH e-mail."

Now Democratic lawmakers and other critics of the administration want to know more about the Bush White House's policy on using outside accounts. Some officials relied on laptop computers and portable e-mail devices provided by the RNC to keep political, nongovernment activities separate from official government activities.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has requested documents and other data from the White House and the RNC as part of a congressional investigation into the use of outside accounts. In at least some cases, it appears that "White House officials were using the nongovernmental accounts specifically to avoid creating a record of the communications," Waxman said in a letter to the RNC.

The proliferation of outside e-mail accounts for White House officials in some ways reflects a problem that many other employers also face: how to keep track of employees' electronic messages as strict, new record-retention policies become commonplace. The practice also suggests that outside e-mail accounts can foster a false sense of security among users.

The White House faces another issue. Under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, the White House must assure that decisions and deliberations are "adequately documented" and that the resulting records are preserved for posterity. Critics of the administration are questioning whether administration officials' use of outside e-mail accounts violates this law.

Officials used outside accounts because "they don't want anyone ever to be able to come back and see what was going on behind the scenes," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.

White House officials dispute the criticisms, saying the purpose of the RNC accounts has been to avoid running afoul of another federal law, the Hatch Act. It prohibits many federal officials from engaging in political activity on government time or with government resources.

"These accounts are for political purposes, and they're for staff who might regularly interface with political organizations" such as the RNC, said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "It's entirely appropriate for them to have these." The Presidential Records Act has a specific exception for purely political matters that don't relate to official duties.

The scrutiny follows several recent investigations that have disclosed use of alternative e-mail accounts, including the current uproar over the fired U.S. attorneys, a House probe into the PowerPoint presentation on the targeted Democratic lawmakers, and the Abramoff investigation. Abramoff, who is now in prison, was at the center of a congressional corruption scandal that contributed to Republicans' defeat in the 2006 elections. The White House provided the e-mails to Congress, which made them public.

The official White House e-mail system uses the domain "who.eop.gov" (for White House, Executive Office of the President), with some variations. Many of the unofficial domains at the center of the controversy trace back to different political campaigns. The 2000 presidential campaign left a legacy of "georgewbush.com" accounts, for example. The "rnchq.org" accounts were created for White House officials who spend a lot of time talking to RNC headquarters.

The Clinton administration generally barred the use of outside e-mail accounts by White House officials, according to its internal policy manuals. It did allow the Democratic National Committee to install computer equipment inside the White House for political e-mails and related work, but not government work, said Sloan and others.

The outside accounts used by Bush administration officials, in contrast, tend to be maintained on computers based off White House premises, such as at RNC headquarters.

Critics also allege that Bush White House officials have been using outside accounts to conduct what amounts to government business. "Replacement of U.S. attorneys would be a traditional function of the White House," said Sloan. "It's pretty clear that's a presidential function, so it's not a Hatch Act function""it's not political."

"At the end of the day, it looks like they were trying to avoid the records act by operating official business off the official systems," said John Podesta, who worked in the White House for the entire Clinton presidency, including a stint as chief of staff.

In his letter to the RNC, Waxman cited an e-mail in which an Abramoff associate said a White House official had warned him not to send requests for help through the official system because "to put this stuff in writing in their e-mail system ... might actually limit what they can do to help us."

Democrats said such e-mails should be going through the official White House system, so they can be archived in compliance with the law. The White House and RNC said the RNC is preserving the e-mails generated by White House officials on the RNC's computers, and that they are exempt from the RNC's normal policy of erasing e-mails after 30 days.

Enforcing the law might be difficult. When Congress adopted the Presidential Records Act, it didn't give any agency much authority to police the White House's handling of official records. A federal appeals court in 1991 held that the courts don't have the ability to enforce the law, either.

Congress also has had trouble obtaining many internal records from the political parties in the past. That means that the White House and its Republican allies likely have wide latitude when it comes to protecting records kept outside the White House computer system.