The specter of “missing e-mails” loomed large throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle because of a scandal arising from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of electronic communications while serving as secretary of state between 2009 and 2013. The issue was twofold, according to Clinton’s critics: one aspect was her use of a private e-mail server to send and receive official messages, laying open the possibility that classified information could have been exchanged in an insecure environment; the other was the deletion of approximately 30,000 e-mails from that server (messages Clinton claimed were personal and unrelated to official business) prior to an FBI investigation of the case.
The FBI concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing or intent to violate laws concerning the handling of classified information on the part of Clinton or her staff, but FBI Director James B. Comey issued a statement calling Clinton’s actions “extremely careless.” The deleted e-mails remained an issue because only Clinton’s lawyers were involved in deciding which messages would be culled as “non-work-related.” GOP candidate Donald Trump brought them up repeatedly in speeches and debates, at one point joking that he hoped Russia could help find them.
Given all the criticism directed at Clinton, it was only a matter of time before an incident involving a large number of e-mails that “went missing” during the Republican George W. Bush administration was revived and injected into the 2016 campaign. On 12 September, Newsweek ran an article by Nina Burleigh entitled “The George W. Bush Administration ‘Lost’ 22 Million E-mails,” which explicitly compared the State Department e-mail fiasco to the one that occurred in the Bush White House and suggested that the latter was infinitely more serious:
For 18 months, Republican strategists, political pundits, reporters and Americans who follow them have been pursuing Hillary Clinton’s personal email habits, and no evidence of a crime has been found. But now they at least have the skills and interest to focus on a much larger and deeper email conspiracy, one involving war, lies, a private server run by the Republican Party and contempt of Congress citations — all of it still unsolved and unpunished.
Clinton’s email habits look positively transparent when compared with the subpoena-dodging, email-hiding, private-server-using George W. Bush administration. Between 2003 and 2009, the Bush White House “lost” 22 million emails. This correspondence included millions of emails written during the darkest period in America’s recent history, when the Bush administration was ginning up support for what turned out to be a disastrous war in Iraq with false claims that the country possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and, later, when it was firing U.S. attorneys for political reasons.
The comparison is apt in some ways, not so much in others. One similarity is the use of private e-mail servers in lieu of government ones. During the course of a Congressional investigation it was found that many Bush White House staffers (including then-Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove) had conducted official business via private e-mail accounts on a server owned and maintained by the Republican National Committee. Then it was revealed that as many as 22 million e-mails sent and received via these private accounts “were not preserved” in accordance with the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which requires that all official communications be archived and accounted for:
The Bush Administration admitted that in reviewing documents requested by Democrats for their investigations, it discovered that as many as 50 of its staffers may have violated the Presidential Records Act. The staffers, the White House said, were using e-mail accounts, laptops and BlackBerries provided by the Republican National Committee for official executive branch communications rather than the exclusively political work for which they were intended. Because the RNC had a policy until 2004 of erasing all e-mails on its servers after 30 days, including those by White House staffers, and because some of those staffers may have deleted e-mails on their own, the White House said it could not assure Congress that they have not violated the PRA, which requires the retention of official White House documents. The White House officials who may have broken the law include senior adviser Karl Rove, his deputies and much of their staffs.
The White House says it is trying to recover the e-mails. “Some official e-mails may have been potentially lost,” says Scott Stanzel, a deputy White House spokesman, “We will do everything practical to retrieve them.” Stanzel and other Administration officials, speaking on background, say the accounts were established in an attempt to stay on the right side of the Hatch Act, which requires rigorous separation of official government activity from overt political work, like fundraising. “[Some] White House staff members have duties that require them to interface regularly with political organizations,” Stanzel says, and therefore they needed separate equipment to stay on the right side of the law.
In plain terms, some 22 million e-mails had been deleted, though the White House described them as “lost” or “missing” — another apparent point of comparison between the Bush and Clinton e-mail scandals. However, at least some of the 22 million “lost” Bush administration e-mails (unlike Clinton’s 30,000) were eventually “found.”
To put it more accurately, a large number (it’s unclear exactly how many) of the messages were recovered from backup storage systems by technicians as a result of a deal struck between the federal government and two nonprofit groups that sued for release of the e-mails via the Freedom of Information Act. It may be impossible, ultimately, to restore all of the deleted e-mails due to funding limitations, and to date none of the recovered messages has been made public because they’re still under review, but the fact remains that not all of them were permanently lost.
As in Clinton’s case, the Bush administration e-mails were sought as evidence in government investigations. No no charges were filed and no criminal wrongdoing was found in regard to Clinton’s handling of e-mails. Bush aides were found in contempt of Congress for not complying with subpoenas in the U.S. attorney firings investigation, but no punishment was handed down.