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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Lawmakers have been pressing the White House for information on the firings of eight U.S. attorneys. Now they want to know why some of the e-mail communications within the White House about those dismissals were carried out on accounts supplied by the Republican Party. Yesterday, the White House admitted that nearly two dozen staffers have been using laptop computers provided by the Republican National Committee, and the White House said some of the e-mails related to the attorney dismissals may have been wrongly deleted.

NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea is following this story and joins us now.

Don, first of all, who are the White House officials who would have had these dual or even overlapping communication systems?

DON GONYEA: Right. Well, first off, we don't have a list. The White House hasn't provided that. But as you said, it's nearly two dozen people; actually, the exact number is 22 people. It's not people, we're told, in the press office. Though in the past, some people in the press office, you know, over the past four years or so, particularly during the 2004 election, may have had this kind of an outside e-mail address issued by the RNC. These are e-mail addresses that would end not with, you know, whitehouse.gov but with gwbrnc, as in Republican National Committee.com.

So what' we're told is it's limited to the White House political office, and that is an office obviously that is headed by Karl Rove, so we know he has one.

Over the course of any given day, people in this particular office might have cause to have internal legitimate political dealings that deal just with the president's standing. But they may also have outside contact with campaigns, with the RNC, and that's why they need to have this separate account.

MONTAGNE: And at the core of this is that there is a law which bans campaign work on government time. So what, the White House is saying that this separate system was set up to avoid violating this law, the Hatch Act?

GONYEA: Exactly. And they say that past administrations have done it. It's just different now because of e-mail and instant communication, and wireless systems and the Blackberries that everybody has on their belt. In fact, these people have separate laptops, separate Blackberries just for this kind of communication. Here's what hard to gauge, is just how these - let's call them the political computers and e-mail systems - were actually used if a lot of these e-mails have been deleted or lost or destroyed, as we are just now learning, as the White House is revealing last night.

MONTAGNE: And Don, the White House is also acknowledging that some of these e-mails may have been improperly deleted. What do critics say?

GONYEA: Well, Senator Patrick Leahy, he chairs the Judiciary Committee, and he's looking into the U.S. attorney firings. He says it sounds like the White House is saying the dog ate my homework. So he's not pleased. Also, you know, the comparison to Watergate and that infamous 18-minute gap in the audio tape from back then seems inevitable.

MONTAGNE: If e-mails have been destroyed, is someone in a lot of trouble?

GONYEA: If someone is found to have destroyed those e-mails willfully or to avoid turning them over to Congress, then that would indeed be a serious crime in itself. Right now, though, we just don't know exactly what was in those e-mails, what the intent of the holder of the e-mail account was.

MONTAGNE: Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

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