A congressional committee said yesterday that the Bush administration has violated the Presidential Records Act by destroying possibly thousands of e-mails sent by top White House officials over the past several years.
“These violations could be the most serious breach of the Presidential Records Act in the 30-year history of the law,” said a report released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “At this point in the investigation, it is not possible to determine precisely how many presidential records may have been destroyed by the [Republican National Committee].”
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the Virginia Republican who chaired the oversight committee until Democrats took control of Congress in January, said the report was premature and speculative, and fell short of the standard for investigations.
“Everything about this report overreaches and prejudges,” Mr. Davis said.
The e-mails originally were sought as part of the investigation into the firings of eight federal prosecutors last year, and also as part of a probe into White House officials’ political presentations to nonpolitical federal agencies.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that Democrats in Congress were “attempting to make old news new again.”
“We indicated in April that we could have done a better job of having clearer policy and better oversight, and White House staffers could have done a better job at considering the need to preserve communications, and when they had questions they should have gone to the White House counsel,” Mr. Stanzel said.
In 2001, when Alberto R. Gonzales was the White House counsel, he wrote a policy instructing administration staff to preserve all e-mail sent to their “private” accounts that might deal with official business.
Mr. Stanzel said that policy did not address political e-mail accounts used by White House officials, but only personal e-mail accounts.
The committee report said the Republican National Committee, which handled the nongovernmental e-mail accounts for administration officials, has destroyed many e-mails but also has preserved some e-mails sent on the accounts.
The largest number of preserved e-mails were sent and received by Karl Rove, one of the president’s top political advisers.
For most of his time at the White House, Mr. Rove has used only one BlackBerry hand-held device, said a former aide who was interviewed last month by the oversight committee staff, and that device sent and received e-mail only for his RNC, nongovernmental account.
Although the RNC apparently deleted many of Mr. Rove’s e-mails from early in President Bush’s term, 140,216, spanning January 2002 to April 2007, have been preserved.
Two of the other top users of the outside accounts in the White House worked directly under Mr. Rove in the political affairs office. Sara Taylor, the director of that office until she resigned this spring, sent 66,018 e-mails on her outside account, and deputy director Scott Jennings sent 35,198 e-mails on his account.
The outside e-mail accounts, according to the report, “were used for official purposes, such as communicating with federal agencies about federal appointments and policies.”
The White House has said that the political e-mail accounts were set up to avoid violating the Hatch Act, which forbids the use of official government equipment, time or resources for political activity.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, accused the White House of ignoring the law and concealing information from Congress and the public.
“Now that we know more than 100,000 of Mr. Rove’s secret e-mails have not been destroyed, I hope the White House will respond to my request for any e-mails from his account that are relevant to the Judiciary Committee’s investigation,” Mr. Leahy said.