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White House: 'We screwed up' on deleted e-mails

Story Highlights

• White House admits it should have kept e-mails on private GOP system
• Chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee doubts e-mails are deleted
• Judiciary Committee votes to allow Leahy to issue subpoenas
• Committee investigating whether U.S. attorneys' firings were politically motivated
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House "screwed up" by not requiring e-mails from Republican Party and campaign accounts to be saved and is trying to recover any documents that may have been deleted, a spokeswoman said Thursday.

The admission came after the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee accused the White House of trying to hide messages related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, which has stirred up a hornet's nest on Capitol Hill.

Congressional investigators have questioned whether White House aides used e-mail accounts from the Republican Party and President Bush's re-election campaign for official government business to avoid scrutiny of those dealings.

"You can't erase e-mails, not today," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. "They've gone through too many servers. They can't say they've been lost. That's like saying, 'The dog ate my homework.' " (Watch Leahy compare e-mails to Nixon tapes Video)

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters that the e-mails from those accounts should have been saved, but said policy has not kept pace with technology. She said computer experts were trying to retrieve any records that have been deleted.

"We screwed up, and we're trying to fix it," she told reporters.

Perino said Thursday that 22 aides in the political arm of the president's office use party or campaign e-mail accounts, which were issued to separate official business from political work. Some of those accounts were used to discuss the December firings of federal prosecutors in eight cities, a shakeup that has triggered a spreading controversy on Capitol Hill.

Perino said the accounts represent "a small slice of people" in the White House, where about 1,000 people have political duties. But she said, "We don't have an idea on the universe of the number of e-mails that were lost."

"I don't know if Sen. Leahy is also an [information technology] expert, but I can assure you that we are working very hard to make sure that we find the e-mails that were potentially lost and that we are responsive to the requests, if there are responses that need providing, on the U.S. attorneys matters," she said. "We're being very honest and forthcoming."

Leahy said the e-mails would have remained on party or campaign computer servers, and he compared the situation to the famous 18-minute gap in one of the Watergate tapes.

"They're there," he said. "They know they're there, and we'll subpoena them, if necessary, and we'll have them."

Panel authorizes subpoenas

Leahy's committee authorized -- but has not sent -- a round of subpoenas for the White House and Justice Department for documents related to the prosecutors' firings, five days before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is scheduled to give much-anticipated testimony before the panel. The House Judiciary Committee took the same step Tuesday.

U.S. attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president. But Justice Department officials set off a firestorm when they initially described the firings as "performance-related," provoking an outcry from the ex-prosecutors and triggering allegations of political influence over investigations.

The Justice Department has sent Congress more than 3,200 pages of documents that touch on why the eight U.S. attorneys were fired last year. But scores of pages contain deleted sections or are entirely blank.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, said the vote to authorize subpoenas could undermine the Senate investigation.

"It is a bad precedent to be subpoenaing the attorney general," he said, "I think it's clear that some people would view it purely as a political exercise."

Leahy has held off issuing the subpoenas for now, but he has the power to do so at any time.

Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate have said they want Gonzales to hand over documents before his testimony. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said he wants Gonzales to answer questions about his discussions with Bush and with Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, regarding the firings.

"The issue here is not the president's ability to fire. It's not even the president's ability to fire without any cause," Schumer said. "The issue is, were people fired explicitly for political reasons because they wouldn't pursue political cases?"

The controversy has led to the resignations of two Gonzales aides -- Kyle Sampson, his former chief of staff, who appeared before the Judiciary Committee in March; and Monica Goodling, who invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination rather than answer questions from Congress.

CNN's Ed Henry and Lisa Goddard contributed to this report.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, says he doubts that the e-mail has been deleted.

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