You know that brewing scandal over White House use of RNC e-mail addresses?

Well, it just got a lot, lot bigger:

Countless e-mails to and from many key White House staffers have been deleted — lost to history and placed out of reach of congressional subpoenas — due to a brazen violation of internal White House policy that was allowed to continue for more than six years, the White House acknowledged yesterday.

The problem:

Until 2004, all e-mail on RNC accounts was routinely deleted after 30 days. Since 2004, White House staffers using those accounts have been able to save their e-mail indefinitely — but have also been able to delete whatever they felt like deleting. By comparison, the White House e-mail system preserves absolutely everything forever, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.

The part that will have administration critics salivating:

The leading culprit appears to be President Bush’s enormously influential political adviser Karl Rove, who reportedly used his Republican National Committee-provided Blackberry and e-mail accounts for most of his electronic communication.

Now one could argue that the problem, while real, was inadvertent, not done with evil intent. And I’m sure the familiar sight of administration incompetence partly explains the problem.

But it stretches credibility to think that someone as highly placed as Rove would not have understood the very clear White House rules governing e-mail:

“Federal law requires the preservation of electronic communications sent or received by White House staff,” says the handbook that all staffers are given and expected to read and comply with.

“As a result, personnel working on behalf of the EOP [Executive Office of the President] are expected to only use government-provided e-mail services for all official communication.”

The handbook further explains: “The official EOP e-mail system is designed to automatically comply with records management requirements.”

And if that wasn’t clear enough, the handbook notes — as was the case in the Clinton administration — that “commercial or free e-mail sites and chat rooms are blocked from the EOP network to help staff members ensure compliance and to prevent the circumvention of the records management requirements.”

So we’re left with three possible explanations:

1. Karl Rove is an idiot;

2. Karl Rove thought the rules didn’t apply to him;

3. Karl Rove deliberately circumvented the records laws.

The answer, for now, appears to be #2:

For Rove, a noted Blackberry addict who holds the position of senior adviser and deputy chief of staff, that would have meant switching from one device to another when alternating from White House business to Republican party business. Apparently he didn’t bother.

I wrote in my earlier post that as a blogger with multiple e-mail accounts, I can understand how staffers could have inadvertently used the wrong account on occasion. But this isn’t inadvertent misuse; this is blatant disregard for the rules.

And it’s not just Rove. Fifty White House staffers were issued RNC communications gear, and apparently many of them also used the RNC gear for official business and improperly deleted messages.

And in classic Bush administration fashion, it’s nobody’s fault:

So is anyone in trouble? Apparently not. Stanzel was careful to apportion blame widely and generically. “This issue is not the fault of one individual,” he said. He refused even to acknowledge that it is the White House counsel’s office that is responsible for the establishment and oversight of internal rules of conduct. The White House counsel during Bush’s entire first term, of course, was Alberto Gonzales, now the embattled attorney general.

There’s more. Read the whole thing. And check out the related coverage. Particularly note the case of Rove aide Susan Ralston, who deliberately used RNC accounts to communicate with Jack Abramoff. And if you want another indication that the White House was fully aware of the situation and that transgressions were not inadvertent, read this:

In another e-mail exchange revealed during the investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a White House official was described as warning that “it is better to not put this stuff in writing in [the White House] . . . email system because it might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.” Abramoff responded in an e-mail that the message in question “was not supposed to go into the WH system.”

It’s hard to read that as anything other than a deliberate circumvention of the law. The Democrats are going to have a field day. And deservedly so.

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