RNC Email Scandal, Wide Dissemination of the Debate as Campus Awaits Decision

Nothing too dramatic has happened on campus recently, and my sense is that all of the on-campus debate about this has played out — see Steve Sverdlik’s report on the Faculty Senate meeting this week. But there are a few developments of note: The author of the Faculty Senate resolution expressing thanks to those who participated in the on-campus debate has sent me her original resolution (which was heavily amended and then failed). Click here to see it — it’s a nice summary of the ebb and flow of discussion on campus. Off-campus, newspapers in the UK, South Africa, and Australia have picked up the story of the debate, running stories very similar to the recent piece in the Chicago Tribune (so similar that they ought to have given the Trib’s reporter credit). I assume that this is because the tie to the overall politics and reputation of the Bush administration is of interest, as well as the fact that as fellow former British colonies these countries have substantial Methodist churches. Third, the reverberations of the debate within the Methodist Church continue, with a frontal attack of the Institute for Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley launching a vehement attack on Bush Institute foe Susanne Johnson on David Horowitz’s online journal.

The controversy over the use of non-government emails by White House staffers, including Karl Rove (who has been heavily involved in the formulation of the Bush complex) has been a leading news story all week. Below I’ve put in some excerpts from and links to some of the more thoughtful coverage, which explicitly links the email scandal to the Presidential Records Act and the question of historical documentation.

Presidential Records Evasion
The Progress Report
April 13, 2007

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) — 44 U.S.C. section 2203 — reads, “Through the implementation of records management controls and other necessary actions, the President shall take all such steps as may be necessary to assure” that the activities of the White House “are adequately documented.” Passed in 1978 by Congress to counteract Richard Nixon’s attempts to seal and destroy some of his papers, the PRA was intended to make Executive Branch leaders accountable by ensuring eventual public access to White House decision-making. In recent weeks, through the congressional investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, more evidence has come to light suggesting that senior White House officials have been using political e-mail accounts provided by the Republican National Committee (RNC), apparently (among other reasons) in an effort to evade the PRA.

Mail Saga Gets Fishier
Dan Froomkin
The Washington Post
April 13, 2007

The saga of the missing White House e-mails took a turn from the deeply suspicious to the deeply, darkly suspicious yesterday as Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman disclosed the bizarre response by the Republican National Committee to early indications that consequential White House e-mails — particularly to and from Karl Rove — were being deleted.

From 2001 to 2004, the RNC’s highly unusual “document retention” policy was to intentionally destroy all e-mails that were more than 30 days old. In the summer of 2004, due to “unspecified legal inquiries,” the RNC changed its policy by allowing — but not mandating — the indefinite retention of e-mails sent and received by White House staffers on their RNC accounts. That was just around the time special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s investigation of White House involvement in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity was kicking into high gear.

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5 Responses to RNC Email Scandal, Wide Dissemination of the Debate as Campus Awaits Decision

  1. Farinata X says:

    Perkins School of Theology faculty members can look forward to Mark Tooley joining them as a Visiting Professor in the not-too-distant future.

  2. Maarja Krusten says:

    Some very lengthy observations on a rainy Saturday evening, drawn from the National Journal article (hidden from some readers of this blog behind a subscription wall) and from comments made by the Air Force historian about electronic recordkeeping. I will be interested to see if these stories about email spark additional interest in electronic recordkeeping among historians. There is plenty of food for thought, so I’ll throw out some observations.

    In her April 14, 2007 article, “Gonzalez on the Griddle,” to which Froomkin refers, Alexis Sindlinger writes in the National Journal that in a speech in 2001, George W. Bush said “that he was worried about his private communications being preserved for history in the National Archives.”

    Ms. Sindlinger notes that soon after George W. Bush took office in 2001, he discovered that “the 1978 Presidential Records Act provided that purely political materials are deemed personal to a president and thus would not be subject to public disclosure through the Archives. It is the president who ultimately determines which political or private materials in the White House records, including e-mails, are released to the public.

    She writes that Mr. Bush turned to Alberto Gonzales to provide guidance to staffers. “Gonzales also described the full range of executive powers available to Bush to comply with or resist requests to disclose White House information.”

    Ms. Sindlinger states that Mr. Gonzalez approved the use of RNC accounts and that Harriet Miers also was aware of them. An article in today’s Washington Post states that White House staff were told in 2001 essentially what I suggested in a posting here on the Bush Library blog earlier this week about forwarding email:

    “A memo [in February 2001] from then-White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales told staffers that if an e-mail that is a presidential record is received on a personal account, employees must ‘ensure that it is preserved’ by printing it or forwarding it to a White House account.”

    The Post adds of more recent guidance, “A new policy circulated by the White House this week for the first time specifies how those 22 staffers who have RNC e-mail accounts are supposed to handle messages that fall in a gray area. They have been told that if an employee is unsure whether the subject of an e-mail is official or political, the political e-mail account should be used — and the e-mail should be saved for review to comply with presidential records law. Staff members who have political e-mail accounts must now sign a statement saying they understand the rules and will abide by them.”

    Richard Nixon’s records were seized in place and contained a mixture of political (personal) and governmental information. Federal archivists trained in history, such as I once was, had the job of deciding into which of the two categories written or recorded information in Nixon’s records fell. Nixon’s are the only records for which that responsibility rests with objective, nonpartisan archivists trained in history. (I happen to have voted for Nixon – and voted straight Republican throughout my career at NARA from 1976 to 1990 — but that never affected my work. NARA’s employees typically hold graduate degrees in history and respect the integrity of the historical records with which they work.) So, only a handful of government employees outside the White House, I among them, ever have done this sort of work.

    As Ms. Sindlinger points out, more recently, White House officials have been the ones who make determinations on the personal or official status of records while a President is in office. When an administration ends, the National Archives receives for its Presidential Libraries the records that have been deemed official or governmental.

    If nothing else, the revelation of a dual email system may attract the attention of historians who do not seem to have given much thought either to the segregation process that is required in records due to a President’s right to “private political association” or to electronic record keeping. I knew email usage eventually would become a big news story as soon as I saw the “It’s Yahoo!, Baby” story in U.S. News & World Report in 2004. That story largely escaped the notice of historians, although I did mention it a year ago in a comment posted under Professor Michael H. Ebner’s April 3, 2006 article, “The Romance of E-mail: Some Ground Rules,” on the History News Network.

    Perhaps the email stories, however they play out (I’m still in wait and see mode), will nudge historians to think more than they have about electronic recordkeeping, in general. Eduard Mark, the Air Force historian, has been one of the few people in the historical community to discuss electronic recordkeeping.

    Dr. Mark and I exchanged some thoughts on H-net’s H-Diplo in 2001. I wrote there in April 2001 that “offices largely have lost the buffer once represented by the secretary/file clerk, the neutral third party with no vested interest in the contents of records. Patrice McDermott of OMB Watch notes that widespread use of the personal computer means that individual officials now choose what to save or not save on their computers. But there are increasing disincentives for officials to create and preserve complete records of their activities.” (I have written elsewhere that I have not resolved in my own mind how soon historical records should be opened to the public. As a creator and a user of federal records, and someone who has given a lot of thought to what I heard on the Nixon tapes, although an historian by training and profession, I understand the various perspectives, including those of White House employees.)

    My comment about secretaries caught Dr. Mark’s eye and he responded with a posting (http://shrinkster.com/nyd ) in which he expressed a number of concerns. Dr. Mark wrote that “I believe that we shall forever know more about the activities of the United States Government at the beginning of the Cold War than about what it was doing at the struggle’s end. When the government’s historians talk shop, a common topic is, “Whatever will our successors do several decades hence?”

    By November 17, 2005, Dr. Mark was even more pessimistic in a posting on H-Diplo. http://shrinkster.com/nyc I had posted there a link to Richard Riley’s article in the Washington Post in November 2005, “For History’s Sake, Nothing Like a Paper Trail.” Dr. Mark replied by providing additional perspective on electronic recordkeeping, not just in the White House, but elsewhere. Because these issues interest me a great deal, I was sorry to see Dr. Mark note what he believed was the “yawning indifference” of historians to these problems. (Although we don’t know much about the details, Ms. Sindlinger’s article suggests that at least a few historians and political scientists did try over the years to talk to White House counsel, first Alberto Gonzalez, then Harriet Miers, about electronic recordkeeping.) Dr. Mark’s posting was gloomy, he concluded in 2005, “The day shall surely come, I predict, when some great and terrible event will bring all these consequences home to the country at large.”

  3. Maarja Krusten says:

    That first Shrinkster link for Dr. Eduard Mark’s 2001 posting on H-Diplo should be
    http://shrinkster.com/nyd

  4. hdhouse says:

    To: hdh@opusonemedia.com
    From: Turdblossom@RNC.org
    Date: April 1, 2007

    Subject: I did not!

    I keep all my emails. Honest! They are on a floppy disk kept in a Funk and Wagnalls Mayonaise Jar on my back porch. They are hermetically sealed.

    If you leave the cash in a brown paper envelope at the regular place (no $1s, $5s or $10s pls and for Godsakes, NO $100s!) I’ll fill you in on the plans to retake the whitehouse in 2008.

  5. George Henson says:

    My guess is that Turner will wait until the semester is over, all have gone home, and the Daily Campus is not publishing to make an announcement. Anyone agree?

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