Sunday, July 1, 2007

The White House email controversy: a historical perspective


By David Gewirtz

It may seem that our story of the controversy over White House email is unique to the George W. Bush White House. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, controversy over how the White House uses email dates back almost as far as email's very existence.

"Controversy over how the White House uses email dates back almost as far as email's very existence."

Way before the Internet, way before Outlook or Lotus Notes, way before Web browsers, Gmail, or even cc:Mail, there was email in use at the White House. And there was controversy. According to the National Security Archive of George Washington University:

President Ronald Reagan tried to erase the White House email computer backup tapes during his last week in office, in January 1989.
President George Bush [the first] signed a secret deal with the Archivist of the United States just before midnight on his last day in office, in January 1993 -- an attempt to put the White House email under seal and take it with him to Texas.
President Bill Clinton reversed forty years of legal precedent in March 1994 by defining the National Security Council out of existence as an "agency" of the U.S. Government, in an attempt to put the White House email beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

As best as we can tell, it all starts with Ollie North, Ronald Reagan, and a former scientist named Poindexter...

Flashback: Reagan administration (1981-1989)

We've got some old-timers in our audience. While the youngest of you don't remember a world without cell phones, some of you old-timers remember early email systems. And one of IBM's earliest email systems was PROFs (the Professional Office System).

Time has a way of blurring our memories. In today's pre-election climate, President Reagan is often pointed to as the model president of the modern conservative movement. And while Ronald Reagan was in this author's opinion a great president, his administration was also flawed -- and racked with controversy.

In fact, it was controversy over something called Iran-Contra that starts all the fuss. We don't have space for a formal history lesson, but the basics are this. In the mid-80s, members of the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran. The money from these sales was funneled to revolutionaries in South America known as the Contras.