WASHINGTON - After promising last year to search its computers for tens of thousands of e-mails sent by White House officials, the Republican National Committee has informed a House committee that it no longer plans to retrieve the communications by restoring computer backup tapes, the panel's chairman said yesterday.
The move increases the likelihood that an untold number of RNC e-mails dealing with official White House business during the first term of the Bush administration, including many sent or received by former presidential adviser Karl Rove, will never be recovered, according to House Democrats and public records advocates.The RNC had previously told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that it was attempting to restore e-mails from 2001 to 2003, when the RNC had a policy of purging all e-mails, including those to and from White House officials, after 30 days. But Chairman Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, disclosed during a hearing yesterday that the RNC has now said it "has no intention of trying to restore the missing White House e-mails."
"The result is a potentially enormous gap in the historical record," Waxman said, including the time leading up to the start of the Iraq war.
Danny Diaz, RNC spokesman, said in a statement that the committee "is fully compliant with the spirit and letter of the law." He declined to comment any further.
Administration officials have acknowledged that Rove and many other White House officials routinely used RNC accounts for government business, despite rules requiring that they conduct such business through official communications channels. The RNC also deleted all e-mails until 2004, when it exempted White House officials from its e-mail purging policy.
The RNC dispute is part of a broader debate over whether the Bush administration has complied with long-standing statutory requirements to preserve official White House records - including those reflecting potentially sensitive policy discussions - for history and in case of any future legal demands.
A former White House technology manager told Waxman's committee in statements released yesterday that the Bush administration's e-mail system "was primitive and the risk that data would be lost was high." Steven McDevitt, who left the White House in 2006, said he supervised an internal study that found hundreds of days in which no electronic messages were stored for one or more White House offices from January 2003 to August 2005. The study stated a range when tallying the total number of days in which each office had no recorded e-mails, from 473 - which had been previously reported - to more than 1,000, McDevitt said.
Administration officials defended their efforts to fix the problems, and said they were still working to locate and identify e-mails identified as missing. "We are very energized about getting to the bottom of this," said Theresa Payton, chief information officer at the Office of Administration.
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