White House: “We Live in a New Time”

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April 12, 2007 12:43 p.m.
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Highlights from this morning’s White House press gaggle, during which spokesman Scott Stanzel did his best to explain the White House’s email retention policies to a very skeptical press corps.

Here’s one highlight in particular. Until 2004, the RNC automatically deleted the emails of White House staff after 30 days. But after that, the policy was changed. The RNC wouldn’t delete the email, but the staffers’ themselves could. But to do that, they would not only need to delete the email but then delete it again from the trash folder (there’s a larger question of whether even that would actually delete the email, but we’ll get to that later). A reporter asked if that didn’t mean that certain staffers had made two affirmative decisions to delete certain emails. Stanzel responded:

Since 2004, the RNC has had a policy of excluding White House staff from their automatic deletion policy, which means that the RNC every 30 days has automatic deletion policy. Since 2004, it’s our understanding, that White House staff who have political email accounts provided by the RNC have been excluded from that policy.

And in terms of the double delete, what you’re talking about is the user’s ability, if they are sitting at their laptop, and decide that, ‘gosh, I’ve got a hundred emails here that I just — are cluttering up my inbox, I want to put them in the deleted file, and I right-click the deleted items to empty my deleted file.’ It’s possible, possible, that those records could have been lost….

More below.From the gaggle:

Reporter: If the White House policy was not clear, though, the Presidential Records Act is clear, presumably. It’s a federal law that’s been on the books since the late ’70s. How could the White House not have clear guidance on what the federal law is? Regardless of White House policy, it’s a federal law on the books.

Stanzel: Well, technology has certainly advanced. We live in a new time. This is just the second administration who’s actually had email. This is the first administration who has dealt with the ubiquity of 24/7 communications in the form of BlackBerrys. So it is always on. The White House policy actually has been improved. We’ve strengthened that in policy, clarified it for staff so they understand how to avoid violations of the Hatch Act, while at the same time adhering to the Presidential Records Act.

In the manual previously, White House manual, there was one paragraph about using your official email account for official business. There were two pages of information about making sure that you do not violate the Hatch Act. That is certainly of concern and we take steps. It’s appropriate to take steps to avoid violating the Hatch Act. There are official business emails, there are political business emails, and then there is also this gray area. And that’s where employees have to make a judgment. And some employees, out of an abundance of caution, could have been sending official business emails on their RNC political account.

So that is the gray area that we’re, in our new policy, working to make sure that staff is clear that they have to retain those. When they have to make a judgment, and they will have to make judgments, they should err on the side of avoiding violations of the Hatch Act, but they should also retain that information so it can be reviewed for the Presidential Records Act….

Reporter: On the change in policy in ’04, wasn’t that in response to Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the White House and the need, in response to his inquiries, to preserve records?

Stanzel: I don’t know the reasons for that change. That’s our understanding of when that change occurred. But the White House Counsel’s Office is working with the RNC counsel to be sure and to gather more information about when changes were made and why they were made….

Reporter: Why would it be the case that a White House official would be talking and writing about the US attorneys case on a non-White House email account?

Stanzel: Well, as I indicated, the guidance at the White House prior to this point has been very clear that you should avoid inadvertent violations of the Hatch Act. And so some employees, it seems clear, out of an abundance of caution, or sometimes out of logistical reasons, have communicated about official business on those political email accounts. And so I can’t speak to the motivations of any individual on why they sent one email one way. I don’t know that. But the White House guidance, what we’ve been working on is trying to make sure that it’s more clear so people understand their obligations under both the Hatch Act and the Presidential Records Act.

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