Bush White House Admits Violating Law on Maintaining Emails

Washington Wire reports that the White House has admitted that it has destroyed email from top staffers in violation of the law:

The White House acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that some top staffers’ emails sent through outside accounts were routinely destroyed, despite a law requiring preservation of presidential records.

Outside email accounts have been created throughout the Bush administration for a select group of top White House officials, mostly those with political jobs that have brought them in frequent contact with the president’s own campaigns or the Republican National Committee. The RNC now maintains the accounts.

Democrats in Congress have been demanding access to the emails as an offshoot of their investigation into the firings of 8 U.S. attorneys. At least one White House official, Scott Jennings, took part in email discussions of the firings using his outside account.

An internal review showed that emails generated by the officials had been routinely erased prior to 2004, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. Even after the routine erasures stopped in 2004, staffers sometimes deleted their own emails. The deletions have now stopped, he said.

The 1978 Presidential Records Act – adopted in the wake of President Nixon’s attempt to claim ownership of his own White House records – requires that every administration take steps to assure that there are adequate records of its deliberations, and that the records be preserved for history. White House officials said they created the outside email accounts in order to comply with another federal law, the Hatch Act, which broadly forbids use of government resources for political activity.

Democrats are skeptical of that claim, and suspect that White House officials were deliberately trying to avoid creating a record of their activities. Democrats say at least some of the outside emails clearly related to official actions, such as the firings of the U.S. attorneys. Unfortunately for administration critics, the Presidential Records Act lacks teeth, and a federal appeals court has held that its implementation usually can’t even be reviewed by a judge.

This interpretation, which admits that the White House broke the law but says that not much can be done comes from a pro-Republican sourse, The Wall Street Journal. While legal remedies through the courts are limited, they forget that Congress can also investigate. While by itself this wouldn’t be sufficient for impeachement, even if it is more significant than an extramarital affair, it is part of a wider pattern of abuse of powers and excessive government secrecy.

Update: More from AP and The Washington Post, including columnist Dan Froomkin

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