There are questions swirling again today about one of the most powerful men in the Bush administration. The White House found itself in the uncomfortable position of defending its handling of e-mails that could relate to the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys, saying that although some messages have been deleted, they were handled with the "utmost integrity."
The missing e-mails, which could number in the millions, include exchanges from some of the Bush administration's highest ranking members.
Responding to questions about the e-mails -- some sent through the Republican National Committee and other private accounts and later deleted -- White House spokesperson Dana Perino said, "I will admit it. We screwed up and we're trying to fix it."
But Perino insisted, "There is no indication of any improper [action]."
Millions of E-Mail Records Likely Missing
Asked about reports that as many as 5 million e-mail messages from the 1,700 employees of the White House could be missing, she said, "We're looking into that."
Perino explained that the White House converted its e-mail to Microsoft's Outlook system in 2002 to 2003, which might have caused some mail to have been lost. She also said the White House is considering hiring a forensics expert to find the lost messages and a review by the White House counsel's office is ongoing.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 requires all White House documents be preserved if they "relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the president."
Rove Records Examined
In January 2006, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, one of 22 White House officials with RNC e-mail accounts, was barred from personally deleting his e-mail from the computer system's main server, Perino acknowledged, but she did not know why that action was taken.
The dual e-mail system has been put in place to avoid any violations of the Hatch Act which prohibits the use of government assets for certain political activities.
The disclosure of the lost e-mails drew incredulity from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who noted that House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., two weeks ago sent a letter to the RNC directing the group to preserve e-mails from White House staff.
Some suggested the e-mails were used deliberately to skirt scrutiny of official White House e-mail.
"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 Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on the Senate floor. "I don't believe that! You can't erase emails -- not today."
Leahy compared the missing e-mails to the notorious 18-minute gap in President Nixon's White House tapes, discovered during the Watergate investigation.
Gonzales Grilling Next Week
The political maelstrom caused by the lost e-mails is merely one of the latest in a series of damaging disclosures related to the firing of the U.S. attorneys.
The revelation comes as two investigative congressional committees have asked the White House to turn over such e-mails.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have questioned whether the firings were politically motivated and whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, White House political adviser Karl Rove and White House counsel Harriet Miers were more closely involved than the administration has acknowledged.
A document released Friday could cause some difficulty for Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, who told members of Congress that "with the exception of Bud Cummins, none of the U.S. attorneys was asked to resign in favor of a particular individual who had already been identified to take the vacant spot."
The e-mail message by Sampson, dated May 11, 2006, lists Rachel Brand as a candidate for a U.S. attorney's seat in the western division of Michigan and Tim Griffin for a post in the Eastern Division of Arkansas.
"There was some early brainstorming about possible replacements for one or more of the U.S. attorneys who were ultimately terminated. By the time they were let go in December 2006, no specific replacements had been identified or decided upon among any of the seven," one source with knowledge of the discussions about the firings told ABC News.
The issue is likely to intensify Tuesday, when Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.