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A Credibility 'Gap'

Bush critics worry that the White House may have deleted Plame-related emails during a 12-hour head start in the CIA leak probe. The delay is worse than they think.
 
 
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On the evening of Monday, Sept. 29, 2003, then-White House Chief Counsel Alberto Gonzales had a choice. He had just received formal notice from the Department of Justice that the White House was the subject of a criminal investigation as a result of White House officials' leaking the identity of an undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame, as part of an effort to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.

Gonzales did not immediately alert the White House staff to the investigation, explaining the need to safeguard germane documents. Instead, he asked Justice Department lawyers if he could notify the staff in the morning. Because the call came in after 8:00 p.m. on a weekday, and most of the personnel had left the building, the attorneys agreed. Gonzales, before wrapping up his day, called White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card to notify him of the start of the probe. Twelve hours later, Gonzales informed his colleagues that they must "preserve all materials" relevant to the investigation.

For some of Bush's more imaginative critics, the 12-hour delay generates images of Card, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby holding a late-night document-destruction party in the West Wing. Indeed, in questioning Gonzales' handling of the issue, Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's Face the Nation, noted that the half-day gap would have "give[n] people time to shred documents and do any number of things."

This delay took on renewed significance last week. The New York Daily News reported that Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor investigating the Plame scandal, told lawyers representing Libby that "many emails from [Vice President] Cheney's office at the time of the Plame leak in 2003 have been deleted contrary to White House policy." The computer system at the White House is supposed to automatically archive emails sent by the president and his aides. For reasons that are still unclear, these emails -- which may or may not be relevant to the Plame investigation -- were not preserved.

Could aides have used the 12-hour gap to conceal incriminating emails that pointed to staffers' role in exposing the identity of an undercover CIA agent? Prosecutors will no doubt explore this in some detail as the investigation continues, but it's important to note that political observers have understated the length of the delay itself -- by a factor of seven.

Indeed, the timeline of events over the five-day period between Friday, Sept. 26, 2003, and Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2003, highlights the fact that the 12-hour head start Gonzales gave Card is largely irrelevant. There was no reason for Card to call back Bush's top lieutenants to start concealing possible wrongdoing after the heads-up from Gonzales. If suppression was their plan, Rove, Libby and others could have begun covering their tracks several days in advance.

When Gonzales received formal notification about the investigation late on Monday, Sept. 29, the Justice Department was only making official what all of Washington already knew. A full three days before the counsel's office received notice, MSNBC reported that the CIA had directed the Justice Department to launch a criminal probe into the leak. In other words, White House aides with internet access learned on Friday night that they were being investigated but weren't told to start securing relevant materials until Tuesday morning, literally 84 hours later.

Perhaps, Bush supporters might argue, the MSNBC report went unnoticed at the White House. Maybe no one on the staff saw the report or any discussion of it on the many political websites that highlighted its significance at the time. Even assuming this is true, it's significantly harder for Bush aides to claim that they also missed a front-page article published in the Washington Post on Sunday, Sept. 28.

The Post's Mike Allen and Dana Priest explained, "At CIA Director George J. Tenet's request, the Justice Department is looking into an allegation that administration officials leaked the name of an undercover CIA officer to a journalist, government sources said yesterday." The same article quoted a senior administration official saying that "two top White House officials called at least six Washington journalists and disclosed the identity and occupation of [undercover agent Plame]." Referring to the leak, the official told the Post, "Clearly, it was meant purely and simply for revenge."

This front-page, above-the-fold article hit doorsteps in D.C. a full 48 hours before Gonzales instructed the staff to preserve materials relevant to the investigation. Considering the news about the investigation, and the provocative quotes from a top administration official, it stands to reason the article caught the attention of some White House employees.

As such, it strained credulity when Alberto Gonzales told a national television audience last summer that "no one [on the White House staff] knew about the investigation" until he received word from the Justice Department. Gonzales may have promptly called Card on the evening of Monday, Sept. 29, but neither Card nor anyone else in the West Wing needed word from the White House counsel's office to know that an investigation was under way. Like anyone with access to the national media that weekend, they learned about the probe days beforehand.

It's understandable that congressional Democrats and others have raised questions about whether Gonzales, now the attorney general, sat on the investigation for 12 hours in order to help give his colleagues in the White House time to cover up their alleged misdeeds. The more relevant question, however, is what those same Bush aides did with the 84-hour notice they received about the federal probe from news reports.

As many observers have noted, a great deal of damage can be done over that period of time. As Congressional Quarterly's Craig Crawford said on MSNBC in July, "[A]nybody who was worried about emails that they had written in the past on this topic had a lot of time to word-search it and delete it, if they wanted to." In light of the now-missing emails from the vice president's office from the relevant time period, Crawford's speculation seems almost prescient.

The concern here has nothing to do with Fitzgerald's thorough investigation, but rather whether Fitzgerald's probe has had access to all the information to which it was entitled. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of several Senate Democrats commenting on this gap in 2003, said, "Every good prosecutor knows that any delay could give a culprit time to destroy the evidence." In this case, the alleged perpetrators wouldn't have had to rush.

The controversy is not entirely without precedent. During the Clinton presidency, thousands of emails went missing after they were improperly archived, prompting congressional Republicans and Independent Counsel Robert Ray to have minor conniptions. At the time, Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., launched hearings into the missing emails through the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee he chaired, exploring the possibility of a coverup.

In theory, congressional Republicans could also consider hearings to explore the missing emails from Cheney's office and the suspicious 84-hour gap. To date, however, GOP lawmakers have resisted any and all requests for hearings into the matter.

Hearings or not, the emails are unlikely to remain missing forever. Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation is ongoing, and prosecutors appear interested in the misplaced electronic correspondence and its possible role in the leak.

Steve Benen is a freelance writer and editor of The Carpetbagger Report .