WASHINGTON Apparent gaps in White House e-mail archives coincide with dates in late 2003 and early 2004 when the administration was struggling to deal with the CIA leak investigation and the possibility of a congressional probe into Iraq intelligence failures.
The gaps 473 days over a period of 20 months are cited in a chart prepared by White House computer technicians and shared in September with the House Reform and Government Oversight Committee, which has been looking into reports of missing e-mail.
Among the times for which e-mail may not have been archived from Vice President Dick Cheney's office are four days in early October 2003, just as a federal probe was beginning into the leak of Valerie Plame's CIA identity, an inquiry that eventually ensnared Cheney's chief of staff.
Contents of the chart which the White House now disputes were disclosed Thursday by Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who chairs the House committee, as he announced plans for a Feb. 15 hearing.
Waxman said he decided to release details from the White House-prepared chart after presidential spokesman Tony Fratto declared "we have absolutely no reason to believe that any e-mails are missing."
Among the periods of time for which the chart indicates e-mail is missing is a five-day span starting on Jan. 29, 2004, when the White House was dealing with the possibility of an election-year probe by Congress into Iraq intelligence failures.
Not archived by the office of the vice president is e-mail for Jan. 29-31, 2004, according to chart information released by Waxman. In addition, all e-mail from the White House Office in the Executive Office of the President was listed as missing for one of those days.
The chart indicates that e-mail also was not archived by the White House on the following Monday Feb. 2, 2004 the day President Bush took a big step in averting what could have been a politically troublesome congressional inquiry. He ordered an independent investigation into intelligence failures in Iraq.
The president conferred that day with former chief weapons inspector David Kay, declaring, "I want to know all the facts."
The commission named by Bush reached a harsh verdict about the U.S. intelligence community's performance, but the panel stopped short of addressing the White House's use of the intelligence data to support the idea of war with Iraq.
The White House says computer backup tapes should contain substantially all e-mails between 2003 and 2005. However, the White House recycled backup tapes until sometime in October 2003, taping over existing data. That could mean some e-mail is gone forever if it is also missing from archives.
An example might be any missing e-mail from Cheney's office in the early days of the CIA leak probe. The White House has not said when in October 2003 it halted the recycling of backup tapes.
E-mails in early October 2003 could reveal key discussions between White House personnel in the week after the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into the leak of Plame's CIA identity. The White House denied that Cheney chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby or top presidential adviser Karl Rove were involved in the leak, an assertion that turned out to be false.
"Can it be a mere coincidence that some of the missing e-mail correspond to a key period during the Valerie Plame investigation?" asked Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Given everything else we know, that is nearly impossible to believe."
Her organization is one of two private advocacy groups suing the White House in the e-mail controversy.
At issue on Oct. 1, 2003, was the push by congressional Democrats for Attorney General John Ashcroft to step aside and appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the White House.
Ashcroft eventually recused himself, and at the end of 2003 U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald was appointed by a Justice Department official to head the probe. Two years later, Libby was indicted, and he was later convicted of obstructing the investigation. His 30-month prison sentence was commuted by Bush. Rove was questioned by a federal grand jury five times but was never charged.
In January 2006, shortly after Libby was indicted, a letter from Fitzgerald to Libby's lawyers was the first public disclosure that the White House was having a problem with its e-mail system.
Fitzgerald wrote: "We have learned that not all e-mail of the Office of Vice President and the Executive Office of the President for certain time periods in 2003 was preserved through the normal archiving process on the White House computer system."
The White House says the e-mail matter arose in October 2005 in connection with the Justice Department's CIA leak probe, in which Fitzgerald later that month obtained a grand jury indictment against Libby for perjury, obstruction and lying to the FBI.