Special Report: GW Bush Presidential Center to release 200 million White House emails to archivists

Special Report: GW Bush Presidential Center to release 200 million White House emails to archivists

Summary: In part 1 of our 4-part Special Report, our resident presidential scholar David Gewirtz (who wrote the book on White House email) provides an exclusive look behind the scenes of White House email.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Government, Storage
14

On April 25, 2013, the George W Bush Presidential Center will be dedicated. Among the dignitaries present, former President Bush and President Obama will be in attendance.

My interest, however, is behind the scenes. As many of you know, I wrote a book, Where Have All The Emails Gone? (free PDF download), about five million missing White House emails and the national security implications revolving around how White House email was managed back in that era.

As the Dallas News reported, the library archivists are going to archive 200 million emails from the Bush Administration, the largest trove yet of electronic communication from a presidential administration.

This is big news, and since it's an area I spent a lot of time on, I wanted to explore the various issues involved with this process.

In honor of the Presidential Center dedication, ZDNet Government is proud to present an exclusive, 4-part in-depth special report on the George W Bush Presidential Center and the 200 million email archive project.

Some background on White House email

Historians and researchers really want to have access to presidential archives and, generally speaking, all presidents aren't too thrilled with the idea. Throughout history, we've seen the situation where presidents tend to try to limit access to their records.

You can understand why, because presidents don't really want conversations taken out of context or a discussion by a 23 year old assistant to be considered the voice of their administration.

Up until the Clinton era, we really didn't have a whole lot of email in the White House, although email did arrive at the White House in the Reagan era.

If you really want to go back, President Lincoln was the first to use electronic communication. He would actually go down to the War Department and hover over the telegraph, waiting for messages coming in from the field about the Civil War.

This practice of hovering over the teletype waiting for reports from the war — and he was tall, so he really did hover — drove the teletype operators absolutely crazy. Lincoln effectively conducted part of the war from where the teletype machines were, making that teletype and the space containing it into what could be considered the first White House Situation Room. It's quite the story.

Moving on to modern days

President Reagan's administration actually had email first. Email in President Reagan's administration was considered very low priority, so it was actually used as a back-channel communication for the Iran Contra affair.

When Admiral Poindexter (who was then the National Security Advisor) didn't want things to be considered "records" that would be kept under the Presidential Records Act, he used email in a scheme he called "Private Blank Check", because he thought email would bypass the Presidential Records Act.

Of course, as it turned out, we had special prosecutors who were very interested in what Reagan did at the time and what his office did. Eventually, the "Private Blank Check" conversations were brought into public view as well.

None of the presidents, until President Obama, have actually sent many email messages. In fact, one of the reasons that I personally think it was worth becoming President was not having to look at email.

Right as he came into office, President Obama decided that he couldn't be separated from the flow, so he's actively using email. President Clinton, I believe, sent two or three messages to the troops at one point, and that was about it.

President George W Bush did not use email at all. His interaction with email was simply: "I'm not touching it. Period." — probably one of the wisest decisions he ever made in office.

He believed that his statements in a casual communication might be misinterpreted. He wanted his statements to be interpreted in the context in which they were intended. So he just completely avoided using email.

On the other hand, his staff used email very actively. That's why access to an archive of Bush administration email messages has caused such great interest among historians and analysts.

The presidential staff is the operation arm of the US government in the sense of governing, decision-making, and process, so while the archives wouldn't contain an email message from President Bush to Vice President Cheney, you're certainly going to have the potential to see discussions from lower tier people, advisors, cabinet secretaries, and the like. That becomes fascinating.

Next week, in Part 2 of our Special Report: The conflict between IT challenge and archiving challenge, and the 103.6 million White House email messages that are still not accounted for (and no one seems willing to talk about).

Topics: Government, Storage

About

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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

14 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Teletype typo?

    Cmd_Line_Dino
    • Oops...

      Yep, telegraph. Corrected, with a link to an article on the topic. Thanks for catching that.
      David Gewirtz
  • Emails?

    I guess nothing from Dubya since he probably doesn't know what Email is used for. :-) [Hence the paragraph "President George W. Bush did not use email at all....." ]
    Gisabun
    • You are doing exactly what Bush feared, and that is to twist the meaning of

      what was stated. But, you went ever farther, by omitting the entire text of what he said, and that makes it even more egregious of an act.

      The article above explains it in detail for you:

      "He believed that his statements in a casual communication might be misinterpreted. He wanted his statements to be interpreted in the context in which they were intended. So he just completely avoided using email."

      But, you had to conveniently go and twist Bush's reasons for not using e-mail, and of course, that's to be expected from his enemies and detractors. Why not stick with the facts, as written and understood?
      adornoe
      • God bless adornoe

        He's purchased the Brooklyn Bridge at least a dozen times.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • I ask you too: Why not stick with the facts as written and understood?

          Attacking me isn't going to change the facts, and apparently, you don't like hearing the facts.

          The Brooklyn Bridge is what all the liberal morons have been selling to their constituents for decades, and you, apparently, aren't smart enough to realize that, you're one of those that have bought that Brooklyn Bridge many times over.
          adornoe
    • "Haters gotta hate.....

      I agree with adornoe. You have chosen to take words out of context and twist the words to your own end. Wonder why?
      charleyj98
      • Is there nothing worse than....

        a troll whose skills at trolling are sadly lacking? That is, after all what Gisabun is - a troll. One would think that those who use ZDNet would be more intelligent than that, but I guess there has to be at least ONE in the crowd.

        That said, PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS?
        btljooz
    • Bush...

      "President George W Bush did not use email at all. His interaction with email was simply: "I'm not touching it. Period." — probably one of the wisest decisions he ever made in office.

      He believed that his statements in a casual communication might be misinterpreted. He wanted his statements to be interpreted in the context in which they were intended. So he just completely avoided using email."

      My take on it is that he spells as well as he pronounces, (also cannot remember names,) thus would not even attempt to type anything out. How about them nukler bombs?
      mlashinsky@...
  • Will The Terrorists Have Unfettered Access As Well?

    Surprising that there is no attempt to delve into the loyalties of those who will be able to look at this material...
    ldo17
  • Do not patronize...

    Let's not waste good bandwidth on this XXX draft dodger that wasted untold thousands of American and other lives with his private war.
    Leo Regulus
    • RE: "his private war"

      It really wasn't all that private. Congress, including the vast majority of Republicans and roughly half of the Democrats, voted in favor of and subsequently supported the Iraq war. I wasn't a 'Dubya' supporter then and am not one today, but I wanted to mention this.

      It's also interesting (to me) that President Obama's Secretary of State picks, Hillary Clinton (1st term) and John Kerry (2nd term), both voted in favor of the Iraq war and subsequently supported it as Senators from New York and Massachusetts, respectively. And Obama, prior to his election to the Presidency, was opposed to the Iraq war*.

      * Obama referred to the Afghan war as the 'good' war.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • Actually, before Bush was president, the democrats were the ones calling

        for deposing Saddam Hussein, even through war.

        Democrats became anti-war just so that Bush wouldn't get any big ratings bounce from the conduct of the wars. Otherwise, the would've been completely happy with the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. A president with good ratings would be devastating to any liberal candidate going up against Bush, so, the wars had to be demonized, along with Bush.
        adornoe
        • I agree, the Democrats are as bad as the Republicans

          Remember Vietnam?

          The fact is that the military, industrial [,congressional] complex is dependent upon war. Both Republicans and Democrats with military bases and/or 'defense' contractor manufacturing operations in their State or District are loathe to have theirs' shut down. Even today, when we can no longer afford them.

          That's one big reason why I'm a registered independent. I've voted for both Green and Libertarian party candidates in national elections. Does that make me a liberal or a conservative?

          P.S. There's a big difference between 'poking with a stick' and an insult. :)
          Rabid Howler Monkey