Also published at my new investigative news magazine The Public Record
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, an investigation by The Public Record http://www.pubrecord.org 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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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