An unknown number of e-mails sent by Bush administration officials using unofficial e-mail accounts likely have been deleted permanently, an admission that could embolden Democratic investigations into the firings of eight federal prosecutors.
"Some official e-mails have potentially been lost, and that is a mistake that the White House is aggressively working to fix," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said during an 80-minute conference call with reporters yesterday. "We're going to do everything to retrieve them and to assure that it doesn't happen again."
Mr. Stanzel said 22 White House officials, including presidential adviser Karl Rove, have had access to two e-mail accounts: an official White House e-mail address and an address supplied by the Republican National Committee.
The second e-mail address was for use in political or nonofficial communication so that Bush administration officials did not violate the Hatch Act, which forbids political activity by federal officials acting in an official capacity.
E-mails on the official White House system are archived to comply with the Presidential Records Act of 1978.
Until 2004, Mr. Stanzel said, White House e-mails using the RNC accounts were deleted automatically every 30 days.
When automatic deletion ended, the e-mails still were not archived. White House officials using the RNC accounts could have erased e-mails by deleting them and emptying their trash folders.
"That capability for those White House staff has been shut off in recent weeks," Mr. Stanzel said.
Mr. Stanzel did not say whether any White House officials used their RNC accounts to evade record-keeping of their communications.
"I haven't spoken with employees about their e-mailing habits," Mr. Stanzel said.
J. Scott Jennings, Mr. Rove's deputy, used his RNC account on a few occasions to communicate with Justice Department officials on the U.S. attorneys' firings, according to documents released by Justice.
The White House's acknowledgment could give Democrats more reason to investigate the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year, a Republican official said.
"Democrats don't honestly believe there would have been a smoking gun in those e-mails, but this gives them a way to keep the theater doors open for at least another week of staged nonsense," said an aide to House Republican leaders.
Congressional Democrats leading the probes did not respond to requests for comment.
Democrats are trying to determine whether any of the eight prosecutors were fired for improper reasons, but they also want to know Mr. Rove's role in the firings because Justice officials initially told Congress that the White House was not involved.