WASHINGTON—White House officials said Wednesday that some presidential aides may have improperly used a back-channel e-mail system to conduct government business.
A conference call that was intended to clear up questions about the use of a Republican Party-sponsored e-mail system at the White House, however, left many questions unanswered. It's still unclear whether White House aides used the outside e-mail system to try to keep their communications secret and how many e-mails might have gone astray.
Some communications that have come to light suggest that officials may have used the outside system to conceal some of their communications.
"I now have an RNC blackberry which you can use to e-mail me any time. No security issues like my WH email," Susan Ralston, a former Rove aide, told now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in a 2001 e-mail.
White House officials were unable to say whether e-mails sent through the outside system could be retrieved. Congressional investigators want to see any back-channel e-mails that might shed light on the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
The outside e-mail system came to light when congressional investigators looking into the firings found White House e-mails with domain names linked to the Republican Party. For example, one e-mail with the subject line "USATTY" came from an address that ended with gwb43.com—a reference to George W. Bush, the 43rd president.
The White House acknowledgement that some e-mails may have been lost forever is sure to become another source of friction in the increasingly testy relationship between the Bush White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
"Some official e-mails have potentially been lost, and that is a mistake that the White House is working aggressively to fix," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told reporters in a conference call. "Our policy at the White House was not clear enough for employees."
Stanzel said the White House is willing to provide Congress with any e-mails related to the firings that it finds in the RNC e-mail system.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, called the White House acknowledgement "a remarkable admission that raises serious legal and security issues."
Stanzel said 22 White House officials, including presidential adviser Karl Rove, have separate e-mail accounts in a system maintained by the Republican National Committee. The RNC also provides laptops and Blackberries for Rove and other aides whose work involves a mix of politics and government business.
The RNC equipment and the outside e-mail system are intended to help White House officials avoid violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of government assets for partisan political purposes. But any communications involving official business are supposed to be conducted through government channels and retained as an official White House record.
Stanzel said some White House aides may have used the RNC system for official business to avoid any possibility of violating the Hatch Act or because the RNC equipment was more convenient.
"Some things are clearly official business. Some things are clearly political business. Sometimes your work may fall into a gray area," he said.
Stanzel said officials from the White House and the RNC are working to retrieve any e-mails but that they have found no evidence of deliberate misuse of the e-mail system.