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Are the 14 Million "Found" White House Emails the New Watergate Tapes?

02/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Perhaps the most frequently-asked question about Watergate is: "How could the conspirators have been so foolish, gabbing away even though they knew the tape recorder was on?" The answer: They were human, and, as such, erred.

Anne Weisman, chief counsel for the non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, compared the infamous gap in the Nixon-Haldeman Oval Office tape to the 14 million White House emails from March 2003 to October 2005 that were missing during the investigation of the Valerie Plame CIA leak, when they might have yielded a smoking gun.

"The Watergate Tapes had an eighteen-and-a-half minute gap where [Nixon secretary] Rosemary Woods did whatever she did," Weisman told me. "We're talking here about a gap of at least fourteen million emails."

2009-01-27-Rosemary_woods.jpg Rosemary Woods demonstrates how she accidentally may have erased tapes

Early this year, the White House found the emails -- it turns out they never were missing but rather, unaccounted for due to a "flawed and limited" internal review. On January 14, Weisman convinced a federal court to order the White House to preserve the emails and all relevant records.

Now, filling in the gaps in the CIA leak case -- like why Bush administration officials exposed Valerie Plame Wilson's covert operative status to Robert Novak and other journalists -- may be as simple as entering "plame" as a search term (or "plane," allowing for misspelling).

"Email is a blessing, and it can be a curse, because it's a written record," Weisman said. "And people know that intellectually. Still they dash off emails, without thinking about what they're saying, as if they're talking on the phone. As a result, you get a lot of very honest information that isn't scrutinized the way official memoranda are."

Weisman also recognizes the possibility that the perpetrators of the leak had the good sense not to chronicle their activities. Or they may have simply deleted their emails.

I interviewed two computer forensics experts familiar with the White House system. Per requests for anonymity, what follows is an amalgam of those interviews:

Q: Can you recover a deleted email?

A: Piece of cake.

Q: Is there a way to delete an email so that computer forensics experts would be unable to find any trace of it?

A: There are hundreds of ways.

Q: If the deleted email had been sent using the White House server, could you still locate it on the backup tapes? [Every night, backup tapes of all White House emails are made and stored in a separate location in case of fire or disaster; the March 2003 to October 2005 tapes also were unaccounted for during the leak investigation].

A: The backup tapes could contain the deleted email, absolutely.

Q: Could someone delete an email that's on a backup tape?

A: You could easily just make a new backup tape. Put on whatever time and date stamp you want. From an evidentiary standpoint, the stamps are meaningless.

Q: So if a perpetrator pulled that off, is that the end of your investigation?

A: More like the beginning. Like an old-fashioned gumshoe, you try to sniff out clues.

Q: For instance?

A: A very simplistic example is, even if there's no evidence of emails written to robert.novak@washingtonpost.com, that address may still be in the email address book on a staffer's computer or BlackBerry. [The Bush administration was also ordered to turn over all devices containing emails.] Something as little as that can broaden the scope of the investigation.

Q: What if that address has been expunged from the address book?

A: The entire hard drive may have been swapped out. But the trail doesn't necessarily go cold there.

In other words, the computer forensics investigation, fundamentally, is as old as hide-and-seek, and will continue to be so until computers can be programmed to remedy human error. Assuming mistakes were made, the scope of the investigation would conceivably expand beyond the 14 million existing White House emails to every email the leakers ever have sent and received: In the digital age, the world increasingly is becoming an Oval Office Tape Recorder 2.0.

I spoke to perhaps the world's foremost expert on the subject, James Bamford, a former intelligence analyst who wrote The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, his third New York Times best-selling book about the National Security Agency. "In order to send an email, the White House has to send it via Novak's server," he said. "Novak's email provider would have the content, if they've kept it until now."

Internet service providers routinely make daily back-up tapes. Moreover, a Yahoo! official told me that her company has retained a majority of individual user emails, since 1997, and has no plans to throw them out. Google has a similar offline backup system. So even if one of the leakers eschewed the White House server and sent the smoking-gun using a personal Yahoo! account from his mother-in-law's laptop computer in Cheboygan, then flung the computer into Lake Michigan, the correspondence likely would be available in its entirety.

Bamford noted that logs of telephone calls placed and received by the leaker would be readily accessible at this juncture as well. In addition, according to a CIA source, it's not out of the realm of possibility that some of the audio was captured by intelligence agency communication intercept systems.

The sum total is Anne Weisman's prospects for reeling in the new Haldeman or Erlichman may be greatly enhanced. Weisman wouldn't mind if, in the process, light were shed on such issues as the U.S. Attorney firings controversy, editing of government reports to downplay scientific findings about global warming, and how exactly 14 million emails were lost to a "flawed and limited" internal review in the first place.

So what is her immediate plan?

Wait.

For five years, at least.

The 14 million emails have been transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration along with 300 million other documents. In accordance with the Presidential Records Act, it will be five years before the Freedom of Information Act allows her to seek a single correspondence.

In the interim, the Supreme Court may hear her case, Wilson v. Libby, potentially giving her subpoena power. She considers her best shots, however, to be either an Act of Congress or an initiative taken by the Obama administration. "They may not want to have to defend the old administration," she said. "They may think the American public deserves to know what happened."

Failing that, the hope is to receive an email from deep.throat2009@hotmail.com.

2009-01-27-H_R_Haldeman_1971_portrait.jpg

H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's White House Chief of Staff

2009-01-27-VPWjpg.jpg

Former CIA covert officer Valerie Plame Wilson