Last week, the White House disclosed that it could not
recover lost e-mails from emergency backup tapes for the period covering the
invasion of Iraq and the U.S. failure to find Iraq�s alleged WMD.
This new gap -- from March 1, 2003, to May 23, 2003 -- also
may have wiped out evidence of how George W. Bush and his top aides reacted to
the emerging criticism from former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson that the White
House had sold the war using false claims about Iraq seeking uranium from Niger
in Africa, an investigation by The Public
Record has found.
�It seems clear now that the e-mail backups are spotty and
that there is no guarantee that there are backup tapes for all of [Executive
Office of the President] during the period of concern, March 2003-October
2005,� said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of George Washington University�s
National Security Archive, one of two organizations suing the White House in
hopes of forcing the administration to preserve its e-mails.
�There are no tapes from earlier than May 23, 2003,� Fuchs
added, referring to an apparent violation of the Presidential Records Act. �So,
anything deleted from the EOP network prior to May 23, 2003 (particularly
between March 2003 and May 23, 2003) is missing from the backup tapes.�
In a federal court filing last week, the White House
confirmed the failure to recover lost e-mails from the emergency backup tapes.
White House Chief Information Officer Teresa Payton and
Press Secretary Dana Perino have blamed the loss of the e-mails on the
administration�s transition from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Outlook.
Other e-mails are missing from a period of several weeks
from late September to early October 2003, another key timeframe when the White
House was caught up in a growing scandal over the leaking of Wilson�s wife�s
status as a covert CIA officer in reaction to Wilson�s public criticism of the
Senior administration officials disclosed Valerie Plame
Wilson�s identity to several journalists in early summer 2003, leading to its
publication in a July 14, 2003, column by right-wing columnist Robert Novak.
However, it was not until September 2003 that a CIA
complaint to the Justice Department sparked a criminal investigation into the
identity of the leakers. At first, however, the probe was under the control of
Attorney General John Ashcroft and did not appear likely to lead to a major
The White House responded to press inquiries disingenuously,
claiming Bush took the leak very seriously and would punish anyone involved.
�The president has set high standards, the highest of
standards, for people in his administration,� then Press Secretary Scott
McClellan said on Sept. 29, 2003. �If anyone in this administration was
involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration.�
Bush personally announced his determination to get to the
bottom of the matter.
�If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know
who it is,� Bush said on Sept. 30, 2003. �I want to know the truth. If anybody
has got any information inside our administration or outside our
administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information
so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.�
Hiding the White House role
Yet, even as Bush was professing his curiosity and calling
for anyone with information to step forward, he was withholding the fact that
he had authorized the declassification of some secrets about the Niger uranium
issue and had ordered Vice President Dick Cheney to arrange for those secrets
to be given to reporters to undermine Wilson�s criticism.
In other words, though Bush knew a great deal about how the
anti-Wilson scheme got started -- since he was involved in starting it -- he
uttered misleading public statements to conceal the White House role.
The missing e-mails from March 1, 2003, to May 23, 2003,
cover another timeframe that is important to the �Plame-gate� affair. During
this period, questions about the veracity of Bush�s Niger claims first
During his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2003,
President Bush had cited what are now called the �16 Words� -- �The British
Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant
quantities of uranium from Africa.�
However, on March 7, 2003, Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the
International Atomic Energy Agency, told the UN Security Council that the Niger
documents were forgeries and could not be used to prove Iraq was a nuclear
The next day, Wilson
appeared on CNN, commenting on Bush�s use of information that the IAEA had
"Well, this particular case is outrageous,� Wilson
said. �We know a lot about the uranium business in Niger, and for something
like this to go unchallenged by U.S. -- the U.S. government -- is just simply
�It would have taken a couple of phone calls. We have had an
embassy there since the early '60s. All this stuff is open. It's a restricted
market of buyers and sellers.�
Wilson added: "For this to have gotten to the IAEA is
on the face of it dumb, but more to the point, it taints the whole rest of the
case that the government is trying to build against Iraq."
What Wilson didn�t disclose at the time was that he had
personally traveled to Niger a year earlier on behalf of the CIA -- in response
to an inquiry from Vice President Dick Cheney -- to investigate whether Iraq
had tried to buy uranium from the African country. Wilson had reported back to
the CIA that the suspicions were almost certainly false.
Wilson�s critical CNN comments apparently caught the
attention of the Bush administration. A month-old Chicago Tribune op-ed by
then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that had promoted the
Niger allegations was redistributed by the State Department on March 10, two
days after Wilson appeared on CNN.
The column, "Two Potent Iraqi Weapons: Denial and
Deception," repeated the suspicion that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium
On the attack
The Bush administration also went on the offensive against
the IAEA. In an interview on NBC�s �Meet the Press� on March 16, Vice President
Cheney rebutted ElBaradei�s debunking of the Niger documents as forgeries.
�I think Mr. ElBaradei frankly is wrong," Cheney said.
The IAEA �has consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein
was doing. I don't have any reason to believe they're any more valid this time
than they've been in the past.�
The next day -- March 17 -- Rep. Henry
Waxman, D-California, sent a letter to President Bush further challenging
his use of the Niger suspicions and citing ElBaradei�s findings.
�As subsequent media accounts indicated, the evidence
contained �crude errors,� such as a �childlike signature� and the use of
stationery from a military government in Niger that has been out of power for
over a decade,� Waxman wrote.
Waxman demanded �a full accounting of what you knew about
the reliability of the evidence linking Iraq to uranium in Africa, when you
knew this, and why you and senior officials in the Administration presented the
evidence to the UN Security Council, the Congress, and the American people
without disclosing the doubts of the CIA.�
Bush didn�t respond to Waxman. Two days later -- on March
19, 2003 -- Bush ordered U.S. military forces to invade Iraq.
Now, more than five years later, it appears internal White
House e-mails that could shed light on what Bush and his circle knew about the
unreliability of their evidence on Iraq�s WMD may have been lost in an
electronic black hole.
The black hole also may have swallowed internal e-mail
traffic relating to the then-escalating conflict with former Ambassador Wilson
as he edged toward going public with his inside knowledge about the
unreliability of the Niger suspicions.
The early Plame-gate affair
On May 6, 2003, a New York Times column by
Nicholas Kristoff used Wilson as an anonymous source to report that the
administration may have knowingly used the phony Niger documents to win support
for the war.
�I'm told by a person involved in the Niger caper that more
than a year ago the vice president's office asked for an investigation of the
uranium deal, so a former U.S. ambassador to Africa was dispatched to Niger,�
�In February 2002, according to someone present at the
meetings, that envoy reported to the CIA and State Department that the
information was unequivocally wrong and that the documents had been forged. The
envoy's debunking of the forgery was passed around the administration and
seemed to be accepted -- except that President Bush and the State Department
kept citing it anyway.�
Two months later, on July 6, 2003, Wilson attached his name
to his Niger accusations in a New York Times op-ed. By then, the White House
was working aggressively behind the scenes to cast doubt on Wilson�s
credibility, including the suggestion that his CIA wife, Valerie Plame Wilson,
had arranged Wilson�s trip to Niger as a junket.
When Novak blew Plame�s cover 10 days later, CIA officials
were outraged, leading to their demand for the leak investigation which began
in September 2003. That, in turn, prompted misleading White House statements
about the non-involvement of key figures, such as Bush�s political adviser Karl
Rove and Cheney�s chief of staff I. Lewis �Scooter� Libby.
However, the leak investigation took a surprise turn in
December 2003 when Attorney General Ashcroft recused himself over a conflict of
interest and Deputy Attorney General James Comey named U.S. Attorney Patrick
Fitzgerald as a special prosecutor.
Fitzgerald approached the investigation more aggressively
and eventually secured the indictment and conviction of Libby on perjury and
obstruction of justice charges. In the aftermath, Bush commuted Libby�s prison
sentence, sparing him from 30 months in jail.
Since then, the Plame-gate affair has faded from public
attention, but it now appears that historians, too, will be denied anything
approaching a full record of the scandal.
Payton, the White House chief information officer, said any
further attempt by U.S. Magistrate John M. Facciola to force the administration
to retain all e-mails on the White House network would "yield marginal
benefits at best, while imposing substantial burdens and disruptions."
But David Gewirtz, an expert on e-mail, and the author of
the book Where Have All the Emails Gone? believes the loss of e-mails
covering the March to May 2003 period is suspicious.
�Sadly, neither elected nor appointed officials in
Washington are making the situation any better,� Gewirtz
wrote in a technical column about the issue. �In fact, it's getting worse.
I've reached the conclusion that it's time to call for a special prosecutor. We
now have official White House statements that federal laws are being broken,
and I don't see any way for this to be resolved without escalation.�
Gewirtz said he contacted Judge Facciola to offer some
technical advice on how to possibly recover the lost e-mails but was told, �The
judge is quite technical.�
�White House e-mail is very problematic and, instead of
productive action, we're seeing our Washington friends -- even those charged
with ultimate oversight -- ignoring very practical solutions and instead
spinning their wheels, at the expense of both present-day Americans and the
historical record,� Gewirtz added.
�What offends me as an IT professional is that none of these
problems are insurmountable. In fact, most of them are easy to solve. What's
worse: not a single private-sector CIO [chief information officer] would be
allowed to get away with negligence on this massive scale.�
Leopold is the author of "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit
www.newsjunkiebook.com for a
new website is The Public Record.