No Comment — February 26, 2010, 1:45 pm

Where are the Yoo and Philbin Emails?

This morning’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, convened by Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), quickly came to a focus on the critical evidence that disappeared into the recesses of the Justice Department as the Office of Professional Responsibility conducted its probe of torture memo writers John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury. “Where are Mr. Yoo’s emails?” Leahy pressed, politely but firmly, before the sole witness, Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler.

Grindler could not offer much of a response, but he clearly was anticipating the question. He had to start examining the matter from a purely technological perspective, Grindler said, taking the matter up preliminarily with the assistant attorney general for administration. He promised to revert when he had more information. Leahy suggested disappointment in the lack of detail in this answer. He was prepared to issue a subpoena for the missing emails, he clarified, but he hoped he wouldn’t have to. Leahy pointed to two provisions of the criminal code that preclude destruction of official records. If the records were in fact destroyed in the face of an investigation, he wanted to know, why was the Department not investigating this as a crime?

Here’s the key passage of the OPR report that set off the inquiry:

OLC initially provided us with a relatively small number of emails, files, and draft documents. After it became apparent, during the course of our review, that relevant documents were missing, we requested and were given direct access to the email and computer records of [Jennifer Koester Hardy—redacted in original], Yoo, Philbin, Bybee, and Goldsmith. However, we were told that most of Yoo’s records had been deleted and were not recoverable. Philbin’s email records from July 2002 through August 5, 2002 — the time period in which the Bybee Memo was completed and the Classified Bybee Memo (discussed below) was created — had also been deleted and were reportedly not recoverable.

What does it mean to say that the emails “had been deleted and were not recoverable”? I discussed this matter today with two federal criminal investigators with experience in recovering emails. Both suggested that the Judiciary Committee was well advised to be pressing the matter and that the Justice Department’s claims that the emails “were not recoverable” were “questionable.”

One, a Defense Department criminal investigator who requested anonymity because he is still on active duty, stated that emails that have been “deleted” can be routinely resurrected without much difficulty. Both the FBI and the DOD have the necessary technical expertise to do this. When a user hits the “delete” key, that merely assigns the space occupied by the email for use again—being overwritten. But in practice even computer disk drive space which has been overwritten numerous times can still generally be resurrected. He notes that emails will have numerous residences—on the computer of the sender, the recipient, individual copies; on the servers connecting these individuals; and on the archival systems. “This is why emails almost never ‘disappear.’ Only physical destruction of the hard drives on which all emails are stored would definitively evade recovery.” That would, of course, be powerful evidence of a conspiracy to obstruct the investigation, and would lead a prosecutor to infer that the evidence stored on the disk drive would have materially advanced the prosecution.

But the OPR report also noted that the emails of Jack Goldsmith, though deleted, were retrieved, and it goes on to discuss some of John Yoo’s emails.

At a minimum, it appears that the Justice Department did not exert itself in any way to retrieve these emails. Is this because seniors at Justice, like Mukasey, Filip, and Margolis, disapproved of the OPR investigation and wanted to hamper it? It may well be that OPR was left to its own resources and collected emails only to the extent that lawyers within the department elected to cooperate with it. We know that Attorney General Ashcroft set a benchmark within the Department by refusing such cooperation, for instance. It may all really be a question of political will, not technological ability.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today