May 9, 2008—Earlier this 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.
“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 this 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 Niger claims.
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, article 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 scandal.
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,” 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.”
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 surfaced.
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 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 threat.
The next day, Wilson appeared on CNN, commenting on Bush’s use of information that the IAEA had refuted.
"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 stupid.
“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 from Niger.
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.
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,” Kristoff wrote.
“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 uncover 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.”
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This story was published on May 10, 2008.