Keeping the Obama administration honest in the Facebook age

Keeping the Obama administration honest in the Facebook age

Summary: I strongly recommend everything -- everything -- should be recorded for posterity.


It's a shame Darrell Issa is such a partisan player. If he weren't, he'd have the makings of quite a good Congress-critter, especially when it comes to Presidential Records Act issues.

I've bumped heads with the newly-minted head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee a few times before. Most recently, I discussed Issa's complaint that former Obama administration Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin (who used to be at Google) was using Gmail while at the White House.

Issa believed that Gmail was a back-channel that allowed McLaughlin to get around the requirements of the Hatch Act. McLaughlin has since left the Obama administration for greener pastures.

See also: Former Googler in hot water over White House email practices

These days, though, Issa's got his knickers in a twist over questions about whether the Obama administration is properly cataloging Twitter and Facebook (and other social networking) messages, and preserving them per the requirements of the Presidential Records Act.

In a letter to Politico, Issa makes an excellent argument that the changing nature of electronic correspondence dictates a need to change how records management at the Presidential level is managed.

He even goes on to describe the problems of White House email and how those problems "plagued both the Clinton and the Bush administrations."

He's right.

The only gotcha is that back during the Bush administration, Issa was the leading apologist for the White House's poor archiving practices. I know, because I had a little bit to do with that issue.

Back then, when the Bush CIO claimed that there were problems with archiving because of a switch from Lotus Notes, Issa (then a junior member of the House Oversight Committee) stated "I wouldn't want to do business with somebody still using Lotus Notes or still using wooden wagon wheels."

It was his way of excusing the Bush White House from the loss of millions of email messages they were required to archive.

That day didn't go well for Issa. When I first wrote about his comments in DominoPower Magazine, I almost immediately got a call from a senior IBM executive who's first statement was, "Please tell me you made that up."

Of course, I didn't. I pulled it straight from the congressional testimony. I later found out that many of Issa's donors used Lotus Notes and, well, he later apologized.

See also: Darrell Issa's Software Error

So you can see my problem with Issa.

It's not that he's now a proponent of more record keeping for presidential records. It's that he's a proponent of more record keeping when the President is from the other party, and he's against better record keeping when the President is from his own party.

Next: Obama's archiving practices »

« Previous: Partisanship and Presidential records

The good news is that the Obama administration, at least back in 2009, had a plan for keeping Presidential records for social networking activities.

See also: Debunked: yet another "secret" White House plan to "harvest" your online activities

Of course, back then, the partisans thought that recording social networking activity was some sort of spying process. They did not like me when I wrote about the White House's plan.

See also: CNN 'Expert' Lamely Claims to 'Debunk' NLPC on White House Data Harvesting From Social Networks

For the record, on September 2, 2009, I actually contacted these guys and offered to listen to their side. They never responded, preferring to complain in public because it gave them more of a forum than lucid dialog. Oh well, politics, I guess.

This all brings me back to Issa, presidential records, and changing modes of communication.

Ever since I wrote Where Have All The Emails Gone (free download), I have stated how important I believe it is for all -- all -- White House messaging to be treated as records for the purposes of the Presidential Records Act. I should be clear here that I wrote the book in response to the original issue of the missing White House email messages -- and partially in response to some astonishing oversights by the members of that incarnation of the House Oversight Committee.

I strongly recommend everything -- everything -- be recorded for posterity. I also strongly recommend that non-EOP (Executive Office of the President) communications (private email and other messaging) by anyone affiliated with the EOP need to be recorded and archived as well, both for the benefit of future historians and for national security.

It's important to note that archiving Presidential records doesn't mean disclosing them.

Archiving is a technological act. Disclosing is a policy act.

So making sure that presidential administrations archive everything doesn't mean that secret conversations will be made public. That's not what the PRA requires. It does mean that if they're needed at some time in the future, those records can be found and evaluated.

So Issa is right in chasing down and holding the Obama administration accountable for PRA record-keeping. He's also right when he says, "It is time for Congress to update federal records laws for the Facebook age."

I also encourage Issa to take another look at the Hatch Act, which helps govern how these records are kept. The Hatch Act goes back to 1939 and essentially is in conflict with Issa's desires for "off-book" email and message archiving. Basically, Congress will not be able to legislate better record keeping for the "Facebook age" if they don't also modify the Hatch Act.

I just wish Issa (and other Congress-critters) were so bold and so diligent when their own party is in the White House.

TalkBack, but be polite. I've discussed my White House email analysis with hundreds of both extremely liberal and extremely conservative radio hosts and in all instances, we've had pleasant, friendly and very interesting discussions. If you're friendly, it'll be good for you, too.

Topics: Data Centers, CXO, Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Software, Social Enterprise


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • No wonder, since Obama has IT head from Microsoft

    That company has long history of malpractice and monopoly abuse around the world, for which was numerously found responsible/convicted/fined.<br><br>Even so, most of anti-monopoly cases against Microsoft were lost and now forever buried in history, because IT people there are masters of no-traces-"archiving".<br><br>Of course, it is not only Microsoft's problem. And even Microsoft overall is not that scary, they behave better these days.

    But Microsoft's "corporate culture" and "ethical standards" brought to White House really matter.
    • I agree!

      M$ dirty deeds went unpunish because they bribed Obama
      and the devilcrats. Only a new technological savy leadership can right this disaster and make the country flourish again.
      This is why we need smart consertive leaders like Mr. Trump or Mrs. Palin in the White House.
      Linux Geek
      • Speaking of partisan double standards...

        @Linux Geek <br>...I think it highly likely that were it not for George W. Bush, MS would no longer exist as a single company and even it it did, I think it was fairly obvious that DOJ oversight of MS in the Bush years was *very* lax (not that the Obama administration is doing any better).<br><br>I also seem to recall that Sarah Palin was caught using private e-mail accounts to conduct official business when she was governor of Alaska. The practice was also endemic within the George W. Bush administration.

        I'd rate your post for humor value, but I think you're serious.
        John L. Ries
      • RE: Keeping the Obama administration honest in the Facebook age

        @Linux Geek OMG I can't believe you just said that even in jest. What a freakin' disaster if one of those two actually got elected.
      • RE: Keeping the Obama administration honest in the Facebook age

        @Linux Geek - @Linux "Geek OMG I can't believe you just said that even in jest. What a freakin' disaster if one of those two actually got elected.
        ZDNet Gravatar

        At least they'd be eligible to hold the office. And a rabid skunk would be less disastrous than having this ineligible marxist in the White House.
      • RE: Keeping the Obama administration honest in the Facebook age


        OMG! Evidence at last for the multiverse!
  • Well said

    I voted for Mr. Issa a couple of times when he was my Congressman, and he's generally respectable, but like so many others, he clearly has a partisan double standard (much like the more senior of my current U.S. Senators, Orrin Hatch).

    I'm not at all certain that every scrap of e-mail needs to be saved, but there is no excuse for conducting official business through back channels (this applies to the private sector as well).
    John L. Ries
  • Translation: I don't like Issa's politics, so I'll discredit

    any statements he makes criticizing current Obama White House tactics by calling him a hypocrite. But, first, to provide myself cover as "fair and hard hitting," I'll make sure to pay a tiny bit of lip service to the actual charge before I begin my full out charge into "shoot the messenger" fallacies.
    • Reread the article

      @frgough@... <br>David said up front:<br><blockquote>Its a shame Darrell Issa is such a partisan player. If he werent, hed have the makings of quite a good Congress-critter, especially when it comes to Presidential Records Act issues.</blockquote><br><br>While hypocrisy on the subject is an old and dishonorable tradition, there is no excuse for loudly complaining about the ethics of opposition party politicians, but remaining silent when politicians of your own party do the same thing (or worse, defending them).<br><br>Reply to frgough's reply:<br><br>While partisan hypocrisy and scandalmongering don't excuse official wrongdoing, they do and should leave a bad taste in people's mouths. I abandoned my Democratic Party registration (without joining the Republicans or any other party) 21 years ago largely because of this very issue. Jim Wright may well have been guilty of shady dealings, but few on either side of the controversy seem to have cared very much about his innocence or guilt. I'm quite certain that neither Newt Gingrich nor Tony Coelho cared about anything but advantage for their respective parties.
      John L. Ries
      • Amen!

        @John L. Ries <br> "There is no excuse for loudly complaining about the ethics of opposition party politicians, but remaining silent when politicians of your own party do the same thing."<br><br>Yes, I just love it that the Republicans are now born-again supporters of the Constitution when they said nothing while Bush Junior shredded it during his administration.<br><br>No wonder the smart people in this country have had it with both parties! And the funny thing about it is that, despite the appearance of each party's hating the other party's guts, the Democrats and Republicans would prefer that the opposition be in office than an independent with a shred of integrity.
        sissy sue
      • sissy sue: Go ahead and lay out the facts about how Bush shredded

        the constitution.

        Shredding means destroying, so I expect that there is no longer a constitution. So, go ahead and elaborate thoroughly.
        Be specific and detailed.
      • Shoot the messenger fallacy.

        Look it up.

        The author's piece is a classic example. Issa's charges are totally ignored because he's a partisan player. Whether or not he held the Bush White House to a different standard is 100% irrelevant to the facts he is now stating. To even bring it up is a deliberate effort to discredit him (shoot the messenger) and downplay what he is saying.
      • @sissy sue

        When people maintain Bush 43 shredded the Constitution, they basically demonstrate they don't know a whole lot about the constitution.
  • Leak softly

    The combination of insisting on keeping records of every communication in the White House, plus cheering on efforts like WikiLeaks, will one day start a war and get millions killed.

    The statement in the article that archiving does not mean disclosure is only as strong as the next self-serving Weenie On A Mission who dreams of having his name in the paper. That's why Administrations from both parties have tried to weasel their way out of these requirements.

    I don't know the answer; maybe a self-expiring encryption scheme that unlocks after 25 years, but no sooner.
    Robert Hahn
    • Sort of

      @Robert Hahn <br>One shouldn't be discussing classified information through back channel e-mails anyway (those who do should go directly to jail), or even unencrypted official e-mail, and I doubt that Mr. McLaughlin was using his Gmail account for national security reasons.<br><br>Like you, I suspect that the Presidential Records Act is overkill, but it seems that back channel government communications are far more often done to conceal questionable activity than to preserve proper confidentiality. It's not like I could get a complete (or even partial) collection of President Obama's e-mails by making an FOIA request, and it seems to me that private sector sysadmins would be just as likely to leak emails as civil service ones (if not more so).
      John L. Ries
    • RE: Keeping the Obama administration honest in the Facebook age

      @Robert Hahn Clearly, since there's some chance of THINGS WE DO THAT WE SHOULDN'T BE DOING IN THE FIRST PLACE making it into the open, there should be absolutely no accountability.
      • To be continuumed

        @RvLeshrac I agree, these things are all-or-nothing. We either publish all presidential communications on the web or tolerate unlimited perfidy.

        By the way, when you exit the stage, would you tell the guy with the "shades of gray" sign that he's up next?
        Robert Hahn
  • The problem is the Scale & Variety of Communications

    Back when only memos were written, and only 5 carbon copies plus origials at that the 1939 act was manageable. Now where a SINGLE e-mail can be sent to a few thousand people and their replies and replies to replies all come back - plus formatting changes of them which can change context - all that to findable and traceable 50 or 100 years later back to who the original sender was - the storage and mainteance of the ORIGINAL application when many records ONLY exist electronically then the hardware and SOFTWARE what was used to create it MUST be maintained FOREVER creates even more problems.

    If the White House sends an e-mail to DOD who is using Exchange now do BOTH sets of systems fall under the requirements to keep all traces of the communication string or just the White House side?

    How many e-mails are generated per day in the White House direct reports and staff? 10,000 a day?

    Now one of the problems is that people may back up but they NEVER TEST the recovery system till they need it - and then they find out it does not work. I've seen that since a test takes SO much time to do and operational needs always override the test time so failures always happen.
  • full transparency?

    My gut feeling is that EVERYTHING our representatives do should be 100% transparent from the beginning. I suspect the loss of strategic advantage might be more than offset by the public's confidence that they know what their government is doing. And if not confidence, at least increased knowledge and better decision making on the part of voters...

    • I agree...

      <i>My gut feeling is that EVERYTHING our representatives do should be 100% transparent from the beginning.</i><br><br>There should be no secrets whatsoever.<br><br>When the president and congresspeople and judges and diplomats discuss anything at all that affects the country, either internally or externally, all of that business should be conducted completely out in the open. We need to have cameras and microphones following those leaders everywhere. <br><br>If we are about to carry out a military operation against an Al-Qaeda stronghold, the discussions should be done completely in the open. And, if we're about to unleash a virus against a nuclear facility inside Iran, we should all be privvy to those conversations before the attack. And, if the president or any candidate for president needs to hide or disclose any information regarding his constitutional qualifications before he/she runs for president, we should all be included in those discussions that led to the release of documents or to the hiding of those documents.