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Ethics: E-mail Evasion

President Bush has consistently attempted to weaken the Presidential Records Act, which was intended to open presidential documents to the public after a period of no more than 12 years.

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GOOD NEWS

Eric Keroack was appointed in November by President Bush to oversee federal family planning programs, despite having worked for a religious pregnancy counseling group that opposes contraception. After months of protests, Keroack has resigned.


STATE WATCH

DELAWARE: State Senate approves legislation permitting embryonic stem cell research.

IDAHO: Gov. Butch Otter (R) signs “into law a bill that requires minor girls to get permission from a parent or guardian for an abortion.”

INDIANA: State House is considering a “proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.”


BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: Kyle Sampson admits he made call to silence FBI complaints about firing of U.S. attorney.

ACS BLOG: President Bush nominates judge who once blocked a Texas television station “from broadcasting information about a renowned televangelist,” a move critics called an “‘intolerable’ violation of the First Amendment.”

POLITICAL RADAR: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales still hasn’t gone to Capitol Hill to “correct” his mistakes.


DAILY GRILL

“I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on.”
— Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, 3/12/07

VERSUS

“I don’t think it’s entirely accurate what he said. … I spoke with him every day, so I think [we had] at least five [discussions].”
— Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ former chief of staff, 3/29/07


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  March 30, 2007
E-mail Evasion
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E-mail Evasion

President Bush has consistently attempted to weaken the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which was intended to open presidential documents to the public after a period of no more than 12 years. It was passed in 1978, after Watergate, “to underscore the fact that presidential records belong to the American people, not to the president,” notes Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). But after 2001, Bush issued a decree that now allows “former presidents and their heirs to bar the release of documents for almost any reason.” He has promised to veto any attempt to return to the bill’s original intent. Recent revelations in the Bush administration’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys shed new light on another way the White House has been deliberately evading the PRA — by using political, non-government e-mail addresses to correspond with one another. Since the White House system automatically keeps records of all e-mails, Bush administration officials — including Karl Rove — are using accounts provided by the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign to dodge public oversight. Unfortunately, after Waxman notified these groups to begin preserving all e-mails by and from White House officials, administration staffers started looking for new ways to hide presidential records from public scrutiny.

AVOIDING_OVERSIGHT@GWB43.COM: The easiest way to reach a White House official may not be through a White House e-mail address. Rove does “about 95 percent” of his e-mailing using his RNC-based account. Many other aides in the Political Affairs Office “use the RNC account as an alternative to their official government e-mail addresses to help keep their official and political duties separate.” Susan Ralston, Rove’s former assistant, used not only an RNC account, but also accounts at georgebush.com and aol.com to communicate White House information with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. At one point, an Abramoff aide noted that Ralston told him to e-mail her at her political account because “it is better to not put this stuff in writing in [the White House] … email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.” E-mails show that Rove’s deputy, J. Scott Jennings, used a political e-mail address — SJennings@gwb43.com — to help orchestrate the prosecutor purge. Even former President George H.W. Bush said his son, the current president, spurns e-mailing because the records could be subpoenaed. But the White House e-mail system has been crafted to comply with the PRA. It “automatically copies all messages created by staff and sends them to the White House Office of Records Management for archiving.” By avoiding the White House e-mail system, the Bush administration has raised serious questions about “whether it is taking all necessary steps to maintain presidential records to provide a full accounting of all activities” during Bush’s tenure.

COMMUNICATING THROUGH TEXTING: On Monday, Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to the RNC and the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign and directed them to preserve all e-mails by and for White House officials because they “may be relevant to multiple congressional investigations.” He also requested that they meet with the committee about the legal issues involved in conducting official government business using partisan e-mail accounts. But since receiving those letters, White House officials have decided that more evasion — rather than more transparency — is now necessary. U.S. News reports that some aides “have subsequently bought their own private E-mail system through a cellular phone or Blackberry server. When asked how he communicated, one aide pulled out a new personal cellphone and said, ‘texting.'”

POLITICAL MOTIVES: Much of the communication done on the private e-mail servers appears to blur the lines between politics and official White House duties. Ralston invited two lobbyists working for Abramoff to use her RNC e-mail account to avoid “security issues” with the White House e-mail system, writing, “I now have an RNC blackberry which you can use to e-mail me at any time. No security issues like my WH email.” Ralston resigned in Oct. 2006, after receiving tickets to concerts and sporting events from Abramoff and his team. Jennings used his gwb43.com address to push Rove protege and former RNC research director Tim Griffin into place as U.S. attorney in Arkansas. Former deputy to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Kyle Sampson admitted in a December e-mail that Griffin’s appointment was largely political and “important to Harriet [Miers], Karl, etc.” Jennings also used his gwb43.com account “to recruit applicants for official government positions through the ‘Kentucky Republican Voice,’ an internet site that describes itself as ‘the best source for Kentucky Republican grassroots information.’ … In each case, these postings encouraged applicants to contact Mr. Jennings at his ‘gwb43.com’ address.” While the Bush administration has repeatedly “denied any political motives” in its prosecutor purge, the repeated use of political accounts for communication casts doubt on this assertion. As RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt noted, “As a matter of course, the RNC provides server space and equipment to certain White House personnel in order to assist them with their political efforts.”

LOSING PRESUMPTION OF EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE: The Bush administration has repeatedly invoked executive privilege as a reason to withhold information on the prosecutor purge. But by using outside political e-mail addresses, White House officials have lost the presumption of executive privilege. As The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum noted, staffers “using private accounts specifically to evade legitimate congressional oversight” might lose their claims to executive privilege. If they were “primarily discussing the U.S. Attorney firings on personal and RNC accounts, that implicitly means that they themselves weren’t treating it as the kind of official business that would be protected by executive privilege,” he added. 

Under the Radar

JUDICIARY — SAMPSON ADMITS URGING FITZGERALD’S FIRING, REFUSES TO SAY WHETHER HE DISCUSSED WITH ROVE: The Washington Post reported recently that Patrick Fitzgerald — the special prosecutor in the Libby trial — was given a poor ranking by the Bush administration despite being described by his colleagues as a “legal star.” The Post reported that Fitzgerald was “ranked among prosecutors who had ‘not distinguished themselves‘ on a Justice Department chart sent to the White House in March 2005, when he was in the midst of leading the CIA leak investigation that resulted in the perjury conviction of a vice presidential aide, administration officials said yesterday.” The ranking was drawn up by Kyle Sampson, but the reference to Fitzgerald “is in a portion of the memo that Justice has refused to turn over to Congress.” During yesterday’s hearing, Sampson acknowledged he had suggested firing Fitzgerald, but said he thought at the time, “I knew it was the wrong thing to do, I knew it was inappropriate.” Asked why he suggested it to White House officials, Sampson said he didn’t know, that maybe it was just to “get a reaction out of them.” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) repeatedly asked Sampson whether he ever discussed drawing up this ranking with Karl Rove. On eight different occasions, Sampson refused to rule out that he had discussed firing Fitzgerald with Rove or his office. (Watch the video.)

IRAQ — WHITE HOUSE SHOCKED BY ABDULLAH’S CONDEMNATION OF IRAQ OCCUPATION: On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah denounced the “American military presence in Iraq as an “illegitimate foreign occupation” and called on the West to end its financial embargo against the Palestinians.” Yesterday, the Bush administration responded with shock to Abdullah’s declaration. “We were a little surprised to see those remarks,” said Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns. White House spokesman Dana Perino went so far as to claim, “It is not accurate to say that the United States is occupying Iraq.” Abdullah’s remarks were just the latest instance of the Saudi’s public distancing from the Bush administration. Earlier this week, the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland reported that the Saudi government rejected an offer to attend a White House state dinner with President Bush. Prince Bandar, “the Saudi national security adviser, flew to Washington last week to explain to Bush that April 17 posed a scheduling problem. ‘It is not convenient’ was the way it was put, says one official.” “I think he was concerned that he was seen too much as Bush’s friend,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Saudis have expressed repeated concerns over Bush’s Iraq policy. The day after last year’s Thanksgiving, Vice President Cheney was “summoned” to Saudi Arabia to “read him the riot act.” The Saudis expressed their concerns that the United States might take the Shiite side in Iraq’s civil war, disregarding the safety of the Sunni Arab community.

ENVIRONMENT — SENIOR BUSH APPOINTEE FAULTED WITH WEIGHING INDUSTRY INTERESTS OVER WILDLIFE PRESERVATION: The inspector general of the Department of the Interior found this week that Julie MacDonald, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks and a senior Bush political appointee, “has repeatedly altered scientific field reports to minimize protections for imperiled species and disclosed confidential information to private groups seeking to affect policy decisions.” According to the report, MacDonald has “repeatedly instructed Fish and Wildlife scientists to change their recommendations on identifying ‘critical habitats,’ despite her lack of expertise,” as her degree is in civil engineering. Other complaints regarding MacDonald include yelling at subordinates, redacting statements from scientists, and “disclosing confidential documents to ‘private sector sources’ such as the Pacific Legal Foundation and the California Farm Bureau Federation, both of which have challenged endangered-species listings.” In 2006, MacDonald consistently “rejected staff scientists’ recommendations to protect imperiled animals and plants under” the Endangered Species Act. She had also pressed staff biologists to more seriously weigh industry positions, arguing that they were “equivalent to scientific studies.” The complaints against MacDonald reflect a larger trend of disregard for wildlife and natural habitats from the Bush administration. Just this week, a “secretive plan” was uncovered from the FWS that would “gut” the Endangered Species Act in order to “limit the number of species that can be protected,” curtail preserved acres of wildlife habitat, and “dilute legal barriers that protect habitat from sprawl, logging or mining.” Learn more about the Bush administration’s record on wildlife preservation here.


Think Fast

President Bill Clinton said blogs can help promote a more even discussion of politics. Clinton added, “They can do research and get the facts and don’t have to bad-mouth people. …I think all these blog sites are creating a whole new opportunity for public debate that may revitalize our politics in an old fashioned way.”

Former deputy to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Kyle Sampson revealed yesterday that former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was not added to the dismissal list until just before the 2006 midterm elections, after Sampson “heard complaints from Karl Rove” that Iglesias had not been aggressive enough in pursuing cases of voter fraud. “Previously, Rove had not been tied so directly to the removal of the prosecutors.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who pushed for Guantanamo’s closure — is continuing to press “others in the Bush administration to move war crimes trials of suspected terrorists from the Gitmo detention center to courts inside the U.S. because the military tribunals may appear tainted in the eye of the international community.”

Peter Wehner, the White House Director of Strategic Initiatives, will be the latest loyal Bushie to depart. “I’ve been here six years, and there was just the sense that it was time to go. We’ve been through a lot,” Wehner said. “Other officials have left the legislative affairs, domestic policy, homeland security, staff secretary, public liaison, speechwriting and first lady’s offices.”

In a letter addressed to Karl Rove, the House Government and Oversight Committee demanded to know who prepared the presentation delivered to General Service Administration employees and whether Rove or his aide Scott Jennings “consulted with anyone about whether it might be in violation of the Hatch Act. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) “also asked whether Rove or any members of his staff have given the same or similar PowerPoint presentations to political appointees at other government agencies.”

President Bush, “who has alienated many Republicans on Capitol Hill, invited the entire House GOP caucus to the White House for the first time in his presidency.” At one point in the meeting, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) turned to his colleagues to ask if they would stay with Bush, and they gave him a standing ovation.

And finally: President George H.W. Bush is a Blackberry addict. Yesterday he told an audience that when he and Barabara “attend Houston Astros games and sit behind home plate, he e-mails to friends from around the country who see him on TV. ‘I e-mail back and tell them, “Okay, I’m going to wave to you after the next strike.” And so it’s a fun thing and I wave,’ he said.”