WASHINGTON - The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee accused the Bush administration Thursday of trying to bury potentially damaging Republican Party e-mails about eight fired U.S. attorneys and compared the situation to Watergate."They say they have not been preserved. I don't believe that!" said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., of e-mails that the White House had said a day earlier might be lost. "You can't erase e-mails, not today. They've gone through too many servers. Those e-mails are there, they just don't want to produce them. It's like the infamous 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes."
Leahy said the idea of lost e-mails was "like saying the dog ate my homework."
His tirade on the Senate floor blindsided the White House and intensified the confrontation between Congress and the presidency over the fired U.S. attorneys.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino responded that the administration is working in good faith with the Republican National Committee and computer experts to retrieve any relevant non-government e-mails and turn them over to Congress.
"I don't know how he could possibly say that when what we've done is endeavored to be very forthcoming and honest," Perino said. "We screwed up, and we're trying to fix it."
The White House acknowledged that some RNC e-mails might be relevant to the congressional investigation into the U.S. attorneys' firings, but it said they may be lost because they were neither sent nor saved on government systems.
"We don't have all of the answers yet, but we are working with the committees. ... I can assure you that we are working very hard to make sure that we find the e-mails that were potentially lost," Perino said of the House of Representatives and Senate panels investigating the controversy.
The exchange came as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales prepares to testify next week before Leahy's panel. It's investigating whether there was inappropriate political influence when the eight U.S. attorneys were fired and their replacements hired.
The Justice Department also was planning to turn over 1,000 more pages of documents to lawmakers Thursday night or Friday - adding to thousands of pages made public over the past month.
Lawmakers told the White House and the RNC weeks ago to retain e-mails that had been sent by White House aides on RNC accounts after an early document release showed that some correspondence on the U.S. attorneys issue had been sent via a campaign e-mail address.
An estimated 50 current and former White House aides had Republican Party e-mail accounts. They may have used non-government e-mail addresses to comply with the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits using government resources to conduct political business.
Democrats have charged that Bush aides might have used non-government e-mail addresses to evade requirements that presidential records be saved for historical purposes.
Sens. Leahy and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told the White House by letter Thursday that they want to hire an independent and "mutually trusted computer forensics expert. Such a process would help to restore public confidence in the White House's desire to comply with the Presidential Records Act."
The House Judiciary Committee instructed the RNC on Thursday to turn over all relevant e-mails and documents by April 20, regardless of what the White House does. The House panel also is looking for e-mails involving the U.S. attorney in Wisconsin, who announced just before last year's election the indictment of a staffer to the governor. An appeals court just reversed the conviction.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., and subcommittee chairwoman Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said if the RNC claims it can't retrieve deleted e-mails, the committee may send its own computer specialists over to try.
A poll released Thursday by Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times found that 53 percent of Americans think Gonzales should resign, and three-fourths of respondents said White House officials should testify under oath about the controversy. But nearly two-thirds also said they think the Democrats are looking for political advantage in the investigation.
McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed.
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources.