The problem with e-mails: hard to delete

Sensitive e-mails lie at the heart of several recent controversies, from former Rep. Mark Foley to the firing of US attorneys.

It came out last weekend that one piece of evidence in the investigation of the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in November 2005 was an e-mail exchange among officers on how to handle the propaganda fallout.

When former Florida Rep. Mark Foley (R) was found to have sent sexually suggestive electronic messages to Congressional pages in 2005, the FBI retrieved and examined the messages.

E-mail has altered the very nature of communications. It has to some extent replaced telephone calls and person-to-person conversation. This can be a convenience, but it can also come back to haunt you.

What brings this to mind is the tussle between the Bush administration and Congress over the release of e-mail files related to the hiring and firing of US attorneys, a process that the Democrats assert has been politicized. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont is particularly interested in exploring his suspicion that White House aide Karl Rove was involved in the setting of partisan standards for prosecutors.

The White House claims that millions of e-mails may have been lost and others written on outside e-mail accounts, presumably with the intention of making them unavailable.

Senator Leahy has advised Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that he considers the Justice Department's production of documents to be "selective and incomplete," with documents withheld or redacted without any legal basis. The Justice Department says that it has already provided more than 6,000 pages of documents and e-mails and does not have any more. Well, maybe. In the electronic era, we have learned that computer files are hard to dispose of. So, Mr. Gonzales and other officials are coming up before Congressional committees again, fighting the battle of the vanishing e-mail that refuses to vanish.

In the White House and Justice Department, they must be looking back ruefully to the happy days when a simple shredder would do the trick.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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