The White House said Thursday that missing e-mail sent on Republican Party accounts may include some relating to the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.
The disclosure became a fresh political problem for the White House, as Democrats stepped up their inquiry into whether Karl Rove and top aides to President Bush used the e-mail accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee to circumvent record-keeping requirements.
It also exposed the dual electronic lives led by Rove and 22 other White House officials who maintain separate e-mail accounts for government business and work on political campaigns — and raised serious questions, in the eyes of Democrats, about whether political accounts were used to conduct official work without leaving a paper trail.
The clash also seemed to push the White House and Democrats closer to a serious confrontation over executive privilege, with the White House counsel, Fred Fielding, asserting that the administration has control over voluminous other e-mail that the Republican National Committee has archived. Democrats are insisting that they are entitled to get the e-mail messages directly from the national committee.
Some of the missing e-mail was sent on political accounts maintained by the Republican National Committee and may have included those relating to the federal prosecutor dismissals.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of a House committee looking into the use of political e-mail accounts, wrote a letter to the attorney general on Thursday saying he had "particular concerns about Karl Rove" following a briefing his aides received from Rob Kelner, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee.
Rove uses several e-mail accounts, including one with the Republican National Committee; one with the White House; and a third, private domain account that is registered to the political consulting company he once owned. Waxman said Kelner reported that in 2005, the national committee adopted a new policy, specifically aimed at Rove, which "removed Mr. Rove's ability to personally delete his e-mails from the RNC server."
Waxman also said he now has "serious concerns about the White House's compliance with the Presidential Records Act," a 1978 law that requires administrations to keep records of deliberations, decisions and policies. The congressman asked for an inventory of all communications by White House officials on nongovernment e-mail accounts.
Bush has directed the White House counsel's office to try to recover any missing e-mails, but Scott Stanzel, the deputy White House press secretary, told reporters Thursday, "it can't be ruled out" that some are missing, and it was unclear how much may have been lost. Democrats were skeptical that any e-mail messages are truly missing.
"We're learning that off-book communications are being used by these people in the White House by using Republican political e-mail addresses, and they say they have not been preserved," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. "I don't believe that. You can't erase e-mails, not today."