Election season heats up e-mail debates

If the flap about missing White House e-mail messages was ever about technology,

that's no longer the case. Questions about how tens of thousands of e-mail

messages were not saved by an automatic archiving system have given way

to old-fashioned election-season politics.

For seven months, House Republicans have been hoping that "reconstructed"

messages from tape copies of the missing White House e-mails would turn

up new and damaging evidence of campaign finance malfeasance, but so far

they have had to settle for something less.

Clearly frustrated, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House

Government Reform Committee, accused the Clinton administration of "spinning

and stalling" after Congress determined that the first batch of e-mail messages

the administration turned over Sept. 22 contained little that would embarrass

the administration.

The most suggestive message was a 1996 e-mail sent by a vice presidential

aide. "I do not remember asking, but I may have. These are FR coffees, right?"

Burton read from a stack of e-mail messages during a Sept. 26 congressional


"That FR doesn't stand for French roast," Burton declared. "Of course

not. It means "fund-raising coffees.' And the president and vice president

said the coffees weren't fund-raisers."

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) dismissed Burton's conclusion as another

in a series of "wild allegations" by committee Republicans determined to

prove that the Clinton administration is corrupt.

By Waxman's count, 130,000 of 150,000 missing e-mail messages have been

recovered and reviewed, and "only 55 have any relevance to this committee's

investigation" of fund-raising improprieties, he said.

But with a close presidential election looming, the e-mail matter is

unlikely to vanish.

Burton accused the White House and the Justice Department, of "trying

to run out the clock" in the final months of the Clinton administration

by stalling and refusing to turn over information that Republicans have


Waxman countered by saying that despite years of investigations, costing

$8 million, for the Republicans "there's always something missing to justify

another wild-goose chase."

On Sept. 26, Burton and Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) pummeled Deputy

Assistant Attorney General Alan Gershel for a decision made by Attorney

General Janet Reno not to launch a separate investigation into the e-mail


Gershel repeatedly refused to answer such basic questions as how many

Justice Department attorneys have been assigned to the e-mail case, which

he supervises. First Gershel insisted that it was Justice custom not to

disclose such information. Then he said, "Even if I was comfortable with

giving an answer, the number changes."

Horn demanded to know "on what authority" Gershel refused to answer

the question, but after threatening to require Gershel to answer, Horn let

the matter drop.


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