Bush White House willfully left Plamegate leaker’s emails unrestored: watchdog
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington might not really be composed of superheroes but many agree that — through the years — CREW has done a kickass job exposing corruption by both Democrats and Republicans, despite often being derided as partisan.
“Top aides to President George W. Bush seemed unconcerned amid multiple warnings as early as 2002 that the White House risked losing millions of e-mails that federal law required them to preserve, according to an extensive review of records set for release Monday,” Ed O’Keefe reported for The Washington Post Sunday night.
The review, conducted by the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, follows a settlement reached last December between President Obama’s administration, CREW and the National Security Archive, a George Washington University research institute. The groups sued the Bush White House in 2007, alleging it violated federal law by not preserving millions of e-mails sent between 2003 and 2005.
The settlement resulted in the restoration of 94 days worth of e-mail and the release of documents detailing when the Bush White House learned of the missing e-mails and how it responded. The restored e-mails are part of the National Archives and Records Administration’s historic record of the Bush administration, but presidential historians and others seeking information in the coming decades about the major decisions of Bush’s presidency likely will be starved of key details, including messages sent between White House officials and drafts of final policy decisions, according to CREW.
“The net effect of this is we’ve probably lost some truly valuable records that would have provided insight” into the administration’s decision-making process on several policy issues, said CREW Chief Counsel Anne L. Weismann, who led the review.
The cover for the report (pdf link), “THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE BUSH WHITE HOUSE EMAILS,” sports an illustration of a CREW member — perhaps Executive Director Melanie Sloan — garbed like a superhero as she attempts to bring the missing emails to the light.
A CREW press release states,
Just how far did the Bush White House go to hide its actions from the American people? A new report released today by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), “The Untold Story of the Bush White House Emails,” attempts to answer the question by providing a wealth of details regarding the Bush White House’s failure to prevent millions of emails from vanishing forever.
“A democratic system of government requires transparency,” said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s Executive Director. “But the Bush administration prided itself on keeping secrets from the American people, ignoring federal records laws requiring White House emails be preserved for future generations.” Sloan continued, “Emails that might shed light on our nation’s recent history – including records created in the lead up to the U.S. war in Iraq – have been wiped away.”
“Sadly, the American people will never know the full truth of just what went on inside the Bush White House as decisions affecting all of our lives were made,” said Ms. Sloan. “Despite repeated warnings that information was being lost, Bush administration officials repeatedly and willfully turned a blind eye to the problem.”
At TPMMuckraker, Rachel Sladja notes, “The 54-page report reads like an IT horror story, with staffers manually saving each email through Outlook and using four different tools to search for emails to answer a subpoena in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.”
“The report also notes that, when trying to recover emails related to the Plame investigation, the White House did not attempt to restore Scooter Libby’s mailbox even though he was at the center of the investigation,” Sladja adds.
The executive summary of the report notes,
Missing emails included emails from the Office of the Vice President for a critical period in the fall of 2003 that were sought by the Department of Justice as part of its investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame WilsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s covert CIA identity.
Files that should have contained these emails also were missing from backup tapes for that period and in its efforts to restore those emails from individual usersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ mailboxes, the Bush White House excluded the mailbox of I. Lewis Libby from those being restored.
More relevant passages from the report follow:
Other documents provide tantalizing tidbits of information that suggest more nefarious conduct. Why, for example, in attempting to recover missing emails from backup tapes to respond to the special counselÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s document subpoenas did the White House not restore email from the mailbox of Scooter Libby?
As OA began to investigate the missing email problem in October 2005, it made an additional and deeply troubling discovery: the archives contained little or no email from the OVP for an important group of days in September and October 2003. While any missing email should have been cause for concern, this discovery set off alarm bells at the White House. DOJ, as part of its investigation into the leak of Valerie Plame WilsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s covert CIA identity, had served the White House with several subpoenas and document requests for OVP emails for the September and October 2003 time-frame. In the absence of any preserved OVP emails for those days, the White HouseÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s responses clearly were incomplete. In addition, the discovery coincided with the end of Special Counsel Patrick FitzgeraldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s investigation into the leak. A federal grand jury indicted I. Lewis Ã¢â‚¬Å“ScooterÃ¢â‚¬Â Libby on five counts of perjury and obstruction of justice on October 25, 2005. His defense team soon began demanding that the special counsel turn over documents, including emails, received from the White House.116 Faced with these issues, OA launched a specific investigation into the extent of the problem with missing OVP emails.
OA devised a three-step plan to try to recover the OVP email from September 30 through October 6, 2003, a vital period because it immediately followed DOJÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s request for documents.
First, OA would try to recover the missing emails from PST files on the backup tapes.125 If that failed, OA would restore the Journal mailboxes and try to retrieve the emails from them.126 The last resort would be to restore the mailboxes of individual OVP employees.127 The plan was presented to and approved by the White House CounselÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Office.128
It appears, however, OA did not restore and search Scooter LibbyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mailbox, even though he was a central focus of the leak investigation. Mr. LibbyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mailbox, with 1,649 emails, was among the individual mailboxes on the backup tapes OA estimated would take weeks to restore.134 The backup tapes also included mailboxes belonging to non-OVP employees.135 To ensure restoration of the correct mailboxes, OA asked human resources for a list of OVP employees dating back to October 2003.136 Apparently and inexplicably that list did not contain Mr. LibbyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s name.137 OA then asked the OVP to validate the list.138 In response, the OVP Ã¢â‚¬Å“reviewed and confirmedÃ¢â‚¬Â the list, a process that resulted in Mr. LibbyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s continuing exclusion.139
Thus, neither the list of OVP users whose mailboxes were to be restored140 nor the final list of restored mailboxes validated by the OVP included Mr. Libby.141
Beyond this, the documents do not indicate why OA apparently did not search and restore Mr. LibbyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mailbox. Perhaps Mr. Libby was not listed as an OVP employee because he was considered an employee of the White House Office. Yet, as a January 23, 2004 email from the vice presidentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s counsel to Mr. Libby notes, he had aÃ¢â‚¬Å“unique statusÃ¢â‚¬Â as a commissioned officer of the president in WHO, but one who principally served the vice president.142 Given Mr. LibbyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s function of serving the vice president, his title in October 2003 of Chief of Staff to the Vice President, and his indictment two months earlier as a result of the special counselÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s investigation, the apparent failure of the Bush White House to restore and search his mailbox is both inexplicable and deeply disturbing.
The Administration Office later proposed a plan to fully restore the missing e-mails in 2005, but White House counsel Harriet E. Miers rejected the plan, according to the report. Miers did not return requests for comment.
Scott Stanzel, a former Bush spokesman, said CREW is a liberal group that “likes to sue for sport and for years has tried to create a spooky conspiracy out of standard IT issues.”
“Nearly two years after President Bush left office, their interest in launching partisan attacks through misleading press releases has not waned,” Stanzel said. “The Bush Administration has complied with the Presidential Records Act requirements and this matter is closed, yet CREW’s tiresome effort to score political points continues.”
Although the Bush administration has been a frequent target of CREW’s efforts, the organization was also critical of several government-funded projects constructed in the district of former Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), has called for the resignation of embattled Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and has accused South Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Alvin M. Greene of violating election laws.
Sloan has been representing Plame and former Ambassador Joe Wilson in their — so far — unsuccessful efforts to sue over the leak. Plame and Wilson have campaigned for Democrats, so this is one reason why many conservatives defending the Bush administration in the Plamegate controversy have been blasting CREW as partisan.