WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. congressional panel investigating the firing of eight federal prosecutors authorized subpoenas on Thursday for e-mails the White House has declared may be missing.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, challenged the White House assertion, saying, “I don’t believe that.”
“It’s not a question of e-mails being lost, it’s e-mails they don’t want to retrieve,’ said Leahy. He joined the panel’s top Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, in asking White House counsel Fred Fielding for a swift probe into the matter. They said Congress would also investigate.
“We screwed up, and we’re trying to fix it,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. She said she had received no indication the White House broke the law.
But Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said it may have violated the Presidential Records Act, which requires an administration to assure its decisions and deliberations are “adequately documented” and preserved.
Waxman, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote federal agencies, asking them to keep any e-mails they have that were received from or sent to the White House via Republican National Committee e-mail accounts.
The White House said on Wednesday some of its staff, including President George W. Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove, wrote e-mail messages on official business on RNC accounts, and some may have wrongly been deleted.
It also said some of the e-mails may have dealt with the firing of eight of the country’s 93 U.S. attorneys last year.
The administration insists that while the dismissals were poorly handled, they were justified. Critics charge the ousters may have been politically motivated.
Questioning if the White House wants the American people to learn “the truth about these matters,” Leahy said e-mails could not be eliminated on a federal computer system. “These things stay forever,” he said.
Leahy said the matter was reminiscent of the old line, “the dog ate my homework,” and “the famous 18-minute gap” in the Nixon White House tapes during the Watergate scandal three decades ago.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said, “We will do — take all reasonable steps to retrieve those messages, and we will certainly ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”
On a voice vote, the Judiciary Committee authorized subpoenas for those and other White House documents as well as records it has sought from the Justice Department.
The panel also authorized subpoenas for William Moschella, a top Justice Department official, and Scott Jennings, a Rove aide.
The votes authorize subpoenas to be issued if the records are not turned over and if Moschella and Jennings decline to appear before the panel.
“This is a political confrontation we don’t need,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the committee, said afterward.
Graham also noted “the key person,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, had agreed to appear before the panel next week amid bipartisan calls for his resignation as the chief U.S. law enforcement officer.
Gonzales will face a crush of questions about shifting and conflicting explanations why the prosecutors were dismissed.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Cornwell