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Issa says White House can too easily hide presidential records

The Obama administration hasn't taken sufficient precautions to ensure White House employees aren't conducting government business on personal electronic devices and Web-based email accounts, thereby evading the scrutiny of future historians, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., charged Tuesday.

All emails sent from White House computers are automatically archived and those computers block access to personal email accounts such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail, Brook Colangelo, chief information officer for the Executive Office of the President, told members of Issa's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

If White House staffers do send work-related email from a personal account, they're trained to ensure those emails are archived, either by forwarding them to their work email accounts or by printing out paper copies, Colangelo said.

But there's no system for independently verifying that White House staffers are being scrupulous about archiving those personal emails, Issa said, or that they're not intentionally hiding some communication in personal accounts.

Issa, who has held a slew of hearings into Obama administration practices since taking over the committee's chairmanship in January, suggested Congress might consider legislation requiring an independent review, perhaps by someone within the presidents' office itself, of staffers' decisions about what constitutes a government-related email exchange and a private one.

National Archivist David Ferriero told Issa he would likely support an independent review of those decisions if it were conducted within the White House, saying he wanted to reduce as much as possible the chances of human error or personal judgment in the archiving process.

The committee's ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., objected on the grounds that more restrictions on White House staffers' communication abilities would be counterproductive.

"What more can be done?" he asked. "Can we ban people from carrying personal cellphones? ... Do we really want to create such an extreme Big Brother mentality like this?"

Other committee Democrats praised Obama for several open-government reforms, including making the White House visitors' log available online so the public can see who's visiting and perhaps influencing administration policy.

The issue of whether White House emails are being properly archived first arose during the 2007 scandal over whether the Bush administration was hiring and firing U.S. attorneys for purely political reasons.

The House oversight committee, then under Democratic control, accused White House adviser Karl Rove and other administration staffers of violating the 1978 Presidential Records Act by sending government emails from accounts and laptops provided by the Republican National Committee, which they had been given to do purely political work.

The RNC destroys most emails after 30 days. The post-Watergate Presidential Records Act requires all official White House business to be preserved in the National Archives, though it gives presidents broad discretion to delay when those records are released publicly.

There's been no similar scandal during the Obama administration, but Issa and other Republicans have charged that lax oversight and the proliferation of new communications technology are a dangerous combination.

Early during Tuesday's hearing, titled Presidential Records in the New Millennium, Issa held up an iPad, and shook it at Colangelo.

"If I take a product like this into the White House, as I did last night for dinner, I have full communications capacity," Issa said. "The fact is that every day people can bring their private property into the White House and Gmail and Hotmail and the like ... Someone, if they choose to, could be emailing back and forth with the [Democratic National Committee] and you wouldn't have the capability to track that, is that right?"

When Colangelo responded that White House staffers are trained to use personal emails for business only when their work emails aren't available, Issa interrupted, telling him to just simply acknowledge that Wi-Fi-enabled iPads are allowed in the White House.

"I'm asking only the technical questions because you don't make policy," Issa said. "I asked for the policy person and I was denied that person ... I'm not after the president and I'm not after the administration. I'm after the changes in technology and whether we're equipped to deal with them."

Also during Tuesday's hearing, Issa suggested reforming the Freedom of Information Act to empower a nonpartisan third party to determine what agency documents created during past presidential administrations should be released. Presently, FOIA requests about old agency document are typically handled by that agency's current leaders.

Such a policy, Issa said, would ensure that the public's access to information isn't encroached on "by the vindictiveness of the next administration or by the graciousness of the next administration in covering things up."

"And the records show there's been a fair amount of both by both parties," Issa said.

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// 12:02 PM ET