"Missing" Bush White House emails found

White House emails retrieved from Bush administration records reveal that top Bush Justice Department officials circulated a memo falsely blaming Al Gore for U.S. failure to get Osama bin Laden. The apocryphal Osama-Al Gore-Oliver North story, already debunked on snopes.com, was forwarded internally to administration personnel by David M. Israelite, Deputy Chief of Staff and Counselor to Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft (pictured above right).

The existence of such politicized emails may help explain why millions of emails sent to and from the previous White House have gone missing despite rules for preserving presidential records. This particular email, spreading a bogus rumor, has not been reported before.

Justice counselor David Israelite forwarded the Snopes-worthy narrative to colleagues in Ashcroft's office Jan. 23, 2002. Headed "For you historians" and "Do you remember?" it purports to describe a 1987 video clip from Col. Oliver North's congressional testimony in the Iran-Contra hearings. According to this anonymous narrative -- which first surfaced in Nov. 2001 and has survived repeated debunking to recur periodically -- North warned senators about Osama bin Laden in his testimony but was ridiculed and shut down by then-Sen. Al Gore.

North himself denied this claim Nov. 28, 2001.

This emailed anecdote from Israelite is the sole internal reference to Osama bin Laden found in a FOIA search of Bush White House emails for 2002.

A top aide to Ashcroft, Israelite was among Ashcroft's first appointments at Justice in early February 2001. The political priorities are clear. Before working for Ashcroft, Israelite had been Director of Political and Governmental Affairs at the Republican National Committee, going to the RNC from the office of Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO). He got his law degree at the University of Missouri and was an attorney in Kansas City law firm Bryan Cave.

Israelite's email about Osama bin Laden, Al Gore and Oliver North was disclosed to Raw Story through prolonged correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), requesting emails between the Bush White House and Bush's attorney general, deputy attorney general, associate attorney general, Office of Public Affairs, Office of Legal Counsel and Office of the Inspector General, in the Justice Department.

9/11 investigation was coordinated directly by the White House

The FBI told Raw Story in 2001 that investigation of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was being coordinated at the national level directly by the White House. Attorney Gen. Ashcroft headed a Justice department deploying every resource, according to public statements, to track down and punish those responsible for 9/11.

White House emails from the Bush years numbered in the millions. Congressional investigators found that thousands of emails went between the White House and top Justice officials, through both government email accounts and private accounts including the RNC. Lengthy FOIA searches have found emails from the previous administration pertaining to Osama bin Laden or to Afghanistan's Mullah Omar, however, only in Attorney General and Office of Public Affairs records. FOIA inquiries about Osama Bin Laden and Omar produced two emails, totaling four pages, between the White House and Justice relating to Omar, and 26 emails totaling 119 pages relating to bin Laden.

The players

Israelite sent the email to Adam Ciongoli and Barbara Comstock, copying to Sonya E. Medina. Ciongoli, Counselor to the Attorney General, was like Israelite one of Ashcroft's first picks and a senior counselor during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2003, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card appointed Ciongoli as administration liaison to the 9/11 commission.

Ciongoli had worked for the Kenneth Starr D.C. law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, then became counsel to the Senate Constitution Subcommittee when it was chaired by Ashcroft. After leaving Justice, he was General Counsel for Time Warner Europe. He has twice clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. He is now General Counsel to the insurance brokerage firm Willis Group Holdings.

Barbara Comstock, Ashcroft's Director of Public Affairs when this email was sent, came to the Justice Department following a stint doing opposition research in the 2000 Bush campaign, where she kept the dirt file on Al Gore. An attorney who had also worked intensively in the Whitewater investigation against the Clintons, she went on to chair Scooter Libby's defense fund in 2007. She recently won a seat in Virginia's House of Delegates in an extremely tight race in Virginia's 34th House district.

Sonya E. Medina, a Texan who followed Bush to Washington, was an Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of Projects for the First Lady. The Washington Post noted Medina among White House insiders receiving last-minute appointments in the final days of the Bush administration when she was appointed to the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation.

Israelite's own career trajectory illustrates the workings of the Washington revolving door.

Among other duties, in 2004 Israelite chaired the Intellectual Property Task Force at Justice, tasked with examining "all aspects of how the Department of Justice handles intellectual property issues" and developing "recommendations for future efforts" according to the publicly released statement.

In February 2005, Israelite was named President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Music Publishers Association.

Copyright infringement has been a continuing concern of Israelite's. In 2004, Israelite issued an unusual statement for release on another hot-button Justice issue, child pornography, saying, "Today's announcement is first and foremost an important blow against child pornography. It also sheds light on the growing problem of illegal activity conducted using peer-to-peer computer networks, which extends beyond the distribution of child pornography to massive theft of intellectual property. The Department of Justice and the Intellectual Property Task Force are concerned about this illegal activity and how peer-to-peer systems facilitate it."

The thrust seems to be that copyright infringement can be used as a means by authorities to go after child pornographers, somewhat like nabbing Al Capone on income tax charges.

Meanwhile, however, the announcement on child pornography referred to is unquestionably being turned against peer-to-peer trafficking: "The Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces today announced a national law enforcement initiative aimed at combating the growing volume of illegal child pornography distributed through peer-to-peer (P2P) file trafficking computer networks."

Sensitive issues, low profile

On several sensitive issues on their watch, Israelite and his colleagues in Ashcroft's office kept a low profile. Ashcroft recused himself from the Enron investigation in face of widespread public knowledge of direct and indirect Enron connections. A newspaper article in Justice files noted that "Deputy Chief of Staff David Israelite and new Communications Director Barbara Comstock came to Justice after working at the Republican National Committee, which received more than $700,000 from Enron and its executives in 1999 and 2000, records show."

A June 2003 IG report on treatment of detainees held on immigration charges after 9/11 includes only this input from Israelite:

"Witnesses told us that the Department of Justice had little input into where the detainees were held. For example, Chertoff, the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division, said he did not have any information about where or how the detainees would be held, with the exception of one conversation in which he was told that an alien had claimed he was hurt by a guard. He said that he was later told that the report was inaccurate, and that the alien had not made such an accusation. David Israelite, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Attorney General, said he could not recall any discussions of holding people "incommunicado" or any discussion of where detainees should be held. He also recalled one allegation of mistreatment being called to the attention of the Attorney General, who he said asked staff to look into the incident."

The 2007 Judiciary Committee report on the U.S. Attorney firings shows that Israelite, not directly implicated in the firing of nine US Attorneys, was part of the cycle.

"After receiving this news from Williams, Richmond forwarded Rosenberg's e-mail regarding the candidate to OAG Deputy Chief of Staff David Israelite with the comment, 'Here we go again. She's a D,'" the report said. "Richmond also sent an e-mail to Williams saying that she would talk to Rosenberg the next day."

While with regard to Bush's surveillance program, former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey exonerated Israelite for the Inspectors General of Defense, Justice, CIA, NSA and the Director of National Intelligence. According to the September 2007 Inspector General's report on the surveillance program, "In written responses to Senator Charles Schumer following his testimony, Comey wrote that he believed that several senior DOJ officials, including Chuck Rosenberg, Daniel Levin, James Baker, David Ayres, and Deputy Chief of Staff to the Attorney General David Israelite, were also prepared to resign. Comey wrote that he believed that "a large portion" of his staff also would have resigned if he had."

The statement is a testimonial to the personnel mentioned and to their ability and willingness to take care of each other.

See also:


Truth or Fiction

Urban Legends

Joe Wein