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White House On E-Mails: "We Screwed Up"

The White House admits that some e-mails about the U.S. Attorney firings may have been destroyed and that some staffers may have improperly done official business on Republican Party e-mail accounts, CBS News White House correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.

The claim that e-mails sent on a Republican Party account might have been lost was challenged Thursday by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who quipped that even his teenage neighbor could find them.

"They say they have not been preserved. I don't believe that!" Leahy shouted from the Senate floor as the dispute over the firing of federal prosecutors continued at a high pitch. "That's like saying the dog ate my homework. It doesn't work that way."

"You can't erase e-mails, not today. They've gone through too many servers," said Leahy, D-Vt. "Those e-mails are there; they just don't want to produce them. We'll subpoena them if necessary."

Separately, Leahy's committee approved — but did not issue — new subpoenas to compel the administration to produce documents and testimony about the firings.

Another 1,000 pages of documents are about to be released by the Justice Department investigators, Axelrod reports.

White House officials insisted the administration is making a genuine effort to recover any missing e-mails that had been sent on an account sponsored by the Republican National Committee.

"I understand his point, but he's wrong," said spokeswoman Dana Perino.

But while Perino pushed back on questions about the e-mails, she also made an uncommonly candid admission.

"We're being very honest and forthcoming," she added. "I hope that he would understand the spirit in which we have come forward and tried to explain how we screwed up our policy and how we're working to fix it."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, fighting to save his job, is to testify to Congress next Tuesday.

In the meantime, Democrats have kept up pressure on the administration with closed-door interviews of department officials and votes to authorize subpoenas for documents and aides involved in the firings.

The investigation has revealed that White House e-mails about official business — on electronic accounts intended for political matters — may be gone, in violation of a law that requires their preservation. Twenty-two White House officials, including political adviser Karl Rove, have the accounts sponsored by the Republican National Committee, administration officials say.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel on Thursday could not rule out that some of the missing e-mails involved the attorney firings.

The president has asked the legal counsel's office to "take all reasonable steps" to see if the messages can be retrieved, reports CBS News White House correspondent Peter Maer. The counsel's office has contacted forensics experts to determine if the issue can be resolved.

For the second day in a row, White House officials would not say whether the missing e-mails could be recovered.

Leahy scoffed.

"I've got a teenage kid in my neighborhood that can go get 'em for them," he told reporters.

Retorted Perino: "I don't know if Sen. Leahy is also an IT expert."


White House officials could not say how many e-mails may have been lost. Meetings Thursday between lawmakers' aides and lawyers for the White House and RNC shed little new light, according to letters sent to the Gonzales and the RNC by the chairmen of congressional committees.

Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said RNC lawyer Rob Kelner reported that roughly 50 White House officials have had e-mail accounts on the GOP committee's servers during Bush's tenure, but the RNC may be able to recover only those sent from 2004 on. That's when the RNC put a hold on an automatic purge policy.

It was unclear, Waxman wrote, whether the RNC had or would be able to recover e-mails written by White House officials, including Rove, and sent on the committee's account.

A second Democratic House chairman, the Judiciary Committee's John Conyers of Michigan, in a separate letter asked RNC Chairman Robert M. Duncan to provide all e-mails from any government employee regarding the firings, directly to his panel rather than to the White House first.

"We would consider that to be an unjustified delay in responding to our request and potentially as an obstruction of our investigation," Conyers wrote.

The RNC did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department prepared to release more documents detailing the decisions, and their aftermath, to fire the eight prosecutors. The department has already given more than 3,400 pages of e-mails, schedules, memos and other documents to congressional panels.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats tried to stave off charges of setting perjury traps for witnesses. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., released 10 questions the panel would be asking Gonzales.

"'I don't know' will not be an adequate response to any question by the committee," said Schumer, who is leading the investigation. Gonzales, who in the past has issued conflicting accounts of his role in the firings, emerged Thursday from weeks of closed-door preparations for his testimony to attend the funeral of an FBI agent in Readington Township, N.J.

Also Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee authorized Leahy to issue subpoenas that would require the administration to surrender hundreds more documents and force two officials, Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General William Moschella and White House political aide Scott Jennings, to reveal their roles in the firings. The panel delayed for a week a vote on whether to authorize a subpoena for Rove's deputy, Sara Taylor.

Also Thursday, House and Senate Judiciary Committee members interviewed Mike Battle, the former head of the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys who carried out the firings. On Friday, they were to call back Kyle Sampson, Gonzales' former chief of staff who quit amid the uproar and testified last month that his former boss was involved in the planning.

Leahy has not issued any subpoenas, but permission by his committee gives him authority to require testimony from all eight of the fired U.S. attorneys and several White House and Justice Department officials named as having had roles in the firings. The White House has refused to make officials such as Rove available to testify under oath.