What secrets (if any) are hidden in Elena Kagan's Inbox?

Summary:Imagine you could go back to the Clinton era, and view Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's inbox, as if you were there.

One of the main indicators that a person is capable of postformal thought is the ability to hold two completely dissimilar thought in mind at the same time. And so it is that the subject I'm about to discuss is both cool on an epic scale at the very same time it's really, really boring.

Here's the exciting part. Imagine you could go back to the Clinton era (I know, some of you are already crying), and view White House emails right in an email client, just like it might have felt to send and receive them in the White House.

How cool is that? Remember, Clinton was in office just as the Internet was getting started, so many of our current email systems didn't even exist back then. This was a time before the Bush administration's whole missing email debacle, and waaay before systems like Gmail were even a twinkle in Google's eye (Google, of course, didn't exist then, either).

So let's travel back in time to the 1990s

You're in the White House, and you're using an email system based on Lotus Notes. Every email you send is archived (required by law through the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act). The archiving system was a bolt-on tool called ARMS Automated Records Management System which worked moderately well (certainly better than the Bush Administration's later use of Outlook PST files).

You're in the White House and your name is Elena Kagan and you have bunch of titles. You're Associate White House Counsel, Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council. You also send email. In fact, from 1995 through 1999, you've sent 2,799 emails recorded by ARMS.

Everything you say is archived in some way. For example, at 3:37PM on July 14, 1995, you ask Marna E. Madsen "Is there someplace I can get a mouse pad?" You're a pretty hard worker. You only mention "lunch" fifteen times in four years and "dinner" eighteen times. Even "vacation" is only listed seventeen times.

While the word "joke" is only found four times in the archives, the most visible instance is what's near the top of the archive: "Two G-rated Jewish joke s". Unfortunately, the content of this message is empty, so although ARMS seems to have archived much of your life, certain messages are either garbled, or... who knows?

Back to the future

Let's come back to 2010. What I've been discussing is the result of an amazing project by Tom Lee of the Sunlight Foundation. He created a site called Elena's Inbox based on archival information published by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum.

The Clinton Library published huge PDF files containing all of the outgoing email from Kagan's time in the White House. According to Lee's research, the messages were originally quite messy. He describes what he thinks was done as:

1. White House officials send emails -- digital records that get fed to ARMS.

2. It comes time to release records. Someone makes ARMS print out its lovely digital files on paper, a profoundly analog format.

3. Those printouts are shipped or faxed to the Clinton Library.

4. Clinton Library staff scan the printouts and run them through optical character recognition (OCR) turning them back into digital documents -- but ones with substantial problems, since OCR is a far-from-flawless process.

5. The once-again-digital documents are then released as PDFs (just to add insult to injury).

It never ceases to amaze me just how clueless (or purposely obfuscating) these two administrations (Clinton and Bush) were at archiving email messages. There were best practices even back then and it's kind of like someone hired his brother-in-law's idiot kid to come in and do the job.

In any case, Lee took on the challenging task of parsing all those PDFs and turning them into a usable system, making the whole thing feel like you're reading the messages in something like Gmail.

As a scholar of White House email, this representation is nothing short of astonishing. Can you imagine how cool it'd be to get ALL of the Clinton era email online in this way? And now that most of the missing Bush White House EOP email messages have been recovered, it'd be great to get those online for the public to read as well.

Nota bene: Notice I said "White House EOP email" and not just all White House email. That's because Presidential email lives in two separate world. Official email is sent through the EOP (Executive Office of the President) mail system, but political email -- by law -- is sent outside of government oversight (and protection). This was a major theme of my book, but the gist is that millions of messages (I estimated 103.6 million) were never tracked nor archived during the Bush Administration. A similar amount were likely not tracked during Clinton's time -- and we're also not preserving Obama Administration political email either.

In any case, the Elena's Inbox project is a tremendous resource, especially as we go into Ms. Kagan's Congressional hearings to determine if she should become our next Supreme Court associate justice. Expect partisans on both sides to pore over all of her messages to see if they can find anything, anything at all that might prove her unworthy or paint President Obama in a bad light for his choice.

Personally, after all these years, I just hope she finally got a mousepad she likes.

Oh, and amusingly, the bio page for Elena's Inbox creator Tom Lee says "Tom Lee hasn't helped on any projects just yet." Oh, yes you have Tom, yes you have.

Disclosure: you may have noticed I referenced "my book" a number of times in this article. I spent a year exploring White House email during the Bush administration and did some of the most comprehensive analysis on this topic.

If you want to learn more about this fascinating subject, you can download Where Have All The Emails Gone? for free, explore all my research resources on the project, and read updates to the story since the publication of the book. All are available from the nonpartisan, nonprofit USSPI's Presidential Technology Watch.

Topics: Collaboration

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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