- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

A top House Republican is calling on the White House to clarify its policy on archiving e-mails, citing administration officials’ use of personal e-mail accounts that could escape archiving under the Presidential Records Act.

In a letter Wednesday to the White House general counsel, Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, noted that the Bush administration’s missteps in complying with the act cost millions of taxpayer dollars to be spent recovering missing e-mails. Mr. Issa, a California Republican, asked the Obama administration to answer questions on e-mail preservation and archiving by March 4.

“The challenges posed by retaining e-mail as required under the PRA have proved vexing for the last two White Houses,” Mr. Issa said in the letter to Gregory Craig, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. “The use of personal e-mail accounts, such as Gmail, to conduct official business raises the prospect that presidential records will not be captured by the White House e-mail archiving system.”

Mr. Issa’s letter cited press reports about top Obama administration officials who use multiple e-mail accounts for official and unofficial business, warning that messages sent over personal e-mail accounts could be subject to federal archiving rules and might not be captured unless White House staffers forwarded the messages to their government accounts.

White House spokesman Ben LaBolt on Wednesday noted that some staff used outside e-mail accounts in the early days of the administration before their official accounts were operational, but said they were briefed on the legal protocol.

“Those staff members were instructed to forward any presidential records that they established during that time period, including e-mails, to their government e-mail accounts to ensure that they would be in compliance with the Presidential Records Act,” he said, adding, “those temporary accounts are no longer being used.”

Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington - a watchdog group that is still involved in a lawsuit over the Bush administration’s compliance with the PRA - said e-mail preservation is “really a nonpartisan issue.”

“No matter who’s in office, we want to have a historical record of their presidency,” she said. “The real question going forward is: Is the Obama administration willing to put in place an effective record-keeping system for their e-mail and are they willing to take the necessary steps to restore missing e-mail?”

The issue of White House staffers using unofficial e-mail accounts became a point of contention after the Bush administration’s firing of several U.S. attorneys in 2007. During a congressional investigation, the administration said it was unable to produce many internal e-mails that were sent by staffers using Republican National Committee accounts, and thus not captured by the White House archiving system.

The RNC e-mail debacle drew criticism from watchdog groups and spurred a number of hearings before Mr. Issa’s committee under then-Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat. The administration subsequently spent more than $10 million to recover 14 million e-mails.

c Jon Ward contributed to this article.

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