Will Missing White House E-Mails Be Modern Version of Nixon’s Tapes?

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President Bush’s aides are lying about White House e-mails sent on a Republican account that might have been lost, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said Thursday, vowing to subpoena those documents if the administration fails to cough them up.

”They say they have not been preserved. I don’t believe that!” Leahy shouted from the Senate floor.

”You can’t erase e-mails, not today. They’ve gone through too many servers,” said Leahy, D-Vt. ”Those e-mails are there, they just don’t want to produce them. We’ll subpoena them if necessary.”

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said there is no effort to purposely keep the e-mails under wraps, and that the counsel’s office is doing everything it can to recover any that were lost.

”The purpose of our review is to make every reasonable effort to recover potentially lost e-mails, and that is why we’ve been in contact with forensic experts,” he said.

Senate Democrats continued to toughen their stance against the White House over the firings of eight prosecutors over the winter.

After his speech, Leahy’s committee approved — but did not issue — new subpoenas to compel the administration to produce documents and testimony about the firings.

Democrats say the firings might have been improper, but that probe yielded a weightier question: Whether White House officials such as political adviser Karl Rove are purposely conducting sensitive official presidential business via non-governmental accounts to evade a law requiring preservation — and eventual disclosure — of presidential records.

The White House issued an emphatic ”No” to those questions during a conference call with reporters Wednesday, saying the Republican National Committee accounts were used to comply with the Hatch Act, which bars political work using official resources or on government time.

But White House spokesman Scott Stanzel acknowledged that 22 White House aides have e-mail accounts sponsored by the RNC and that e-mails they sent may have been lost.

Stanzel said the White House was trying to recover the e-mails and could not rule out that some may have involved the firings.The administration also is drafting new guidelines for aides on how to comply with the law.

Leahy was not buying that.

”E-mails don’t get lost,” Leahy insisted. ”These are just e-mails they don’t want to bring forward.”

[He made another reference: “Like the famous 18-minute gap in the Nixon White House tapes, it appears likely that key documentation has been erased or misplaced. “]

The revelation about the e-mails escalates a standoff between the Democrat-controlled Congress and the White House over the prosecutor firings. The subpoenas come a few days before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is to appear before Leahy’s committee Tuesday to fight for his job.

Leahy’s panel approved new subpoenas that would compel the Bush administration to surrender hundreds of new documents and force two officials — Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella and White House political aide Scott Jennings — to reveal their roles in the firings. The panel delayed for a week a vote on whether to authorize a subpoena for Rove’s deputy, Sara Taylor.

Leahy has not issued any subpoenas, but permission by his committee Thursday would give him authority to require testimony from all eight of the fired U.S. attorneys and several White House and Justice Department officials named in e-mails made public as having had roles in the firings. The White House has refused to make officials such as Rove available to testify under oath.

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