Burton: Special counsel needed to investigate White House e-mail controversy
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton on Monday called on Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel to investigate the ongoing White House electronic mail controversy.
But the Justice Department response said the request may be moot since Independent Counsel Robert Ray, the successor to Kenneth Starr, is already looking into the issue.
Burton, R-Indiana, said the Justice Department is both investigating the issue and defending its conduct in the matter. He wrote to the attorney general: "Ms. Reno, you cannot use the Campaign Financing Task Force, supervised by yourself, to investigate yourself and the Justice Department lawyers who helped keep the e-mails from being produced to Congress, Independent Counsels, and your own Campaign Financing Task Force."
The task force has begun a criminal investigation into whether the White House has obstructed justice by its handling of the e-mail matter. The White House only recently informed Congress that a computer glitch had prevented it from producing thousands of e-mails under subpoena by congressional and Justice Department investigators.
In his eight-page letter to Reno, Burton wrote that a special counsel "should be completely independent and have no current ties to the Justice Department."
Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin did not flatly reject Burton's request, but indicated the questions Burton is after are already being looked into by an outside investigator.
"The independent counsel has an investigation into the pending allegations as does the Justice Campaign Finance Task Force, but we're currently reviewing the committee's letter to see if yet another investigator is needed," Marlin said.
Burton's committee is tentatively planning a hearing for Thursday, March 30. The invited guest is White House Counsel Beth Nolan, whose opening statement was submitted to the committee in proceedings last week.
The e-mail issue arose from a problem in the White House's automated record management system -- known as ARMS -- which resulted in the improper scanning, logging and archiving of incoming, external e-mails to nearly 500 White House personnel, many of them high-ranking.
Those e-mails subsequently were not handed over in response to subpoenas by Congress, the Office of Independent Counsel or the Justice Department.
White House officials acknowledged last week at a Government Reform Committee hearing that they asked contract staffers not to discuss the computer problems, but rejected claims that those staffers had been threatened.
The e-mails, which some have estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, may pertain to ongoing investigations by Congress, the Office of Independent Counsel and the Justice Department, and may have included information regarding former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, as well as campaign finance matters that may involve Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
White House officials reject cover-up claims
Last Thursday, three Northrop Grumman contract employees charged with operating the e-mail system testified that White House officials Mark Lindsay and Linda Callahan had threatened to have them jailed if the problem was disclosed. The employees said the problem was technical in nature, but the White House nonetheless wanted to keep it a secret.
Lindsay, along with Callahan -- a career civil servant who at the time the problem surfaced served as the White House webmaster -- testified before Burton's committee that they were simply following standard White House operating procedures when they instructed the Northrop Grumman team to remain quiet on the issue while the problem was diagnosed and repaired.
When asked why some on the team -- including Robert Haas, a systems administrator who said he was told there would be a "jail cell with his name on it" if he disclosed the problem -- recalled having been threatened during a meeting on the issue, Callahan said: "He may be either having a bad recollection or having an overactive imagination ..."
The technical problem was not made public until last month, when former contract employee Betty Lambuth accused White House staff of a coverup in a lawsuit filed by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch.
As part of that lawsuit and a subsequent investigation by Burton's committee, Lambuth claimed she had been threatened with jail if she revealed the existence of the problem. "I was told by a couple of different people that we were not to talk to anyone," she said.
Separate glitch covers vice president's office
The White House has turned over more than 7,000 pieces of e-mail in response to subpoenas in a series of legal matters. Most of those who testified last week said they did not believe the problem was actually caused by the White House, nor did the White House tell them to destroy any e-mails.
"We didn't know enough about what was going on to be able to say that the White House was obstructing anything," said John Spriggs, a Northrop Grumman senior engineer for electronic mail.
White House officials also acknowledged last week that a second, separate computer problem affecting the Office of the Vice President may have resulted in thousands of e-mail messages escaping the investigative reach of Congress, the Justice Department and the Office of the Independent Counsel.
Although the contents of those e-mail messages are not known, they could include correspondence regarding the vice president's fund-raising activities, which have been the subject of an investigation by both Congress and the Justice Department task force. There is no indication that Gore had any knowledge of the problem.
That separate glitch may still be unresolved, and may have occurred earlier than the problem with the incoming White House e-mail -- which White House officials say struck between August 1996 and June 1998.
CNN's Bob Franken contributed to this report.