Special report: How managing presidential email is managing a president's legacy

Special report: How managing presidential email is managing a president's legacy

Summary: In part 4 of our four-part special report, presidential scholar David Gewirtz (who wrote the book on White House email) explores how President Bush's email archives are going to be managed, and how presidential email is part of the legacy of each presidential administration.

TOPICS: Government, Storage

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

How the email archives are going to be managed

I really think that for this treasure trove of historical information to become useful, it's going to need some machine filtering. Back in the day, most government agencies "archived" email by printing it all out. That was their archiving mechanism, fully supported by law and regulation.

The idea, to meet the requirements of both the federal and the Presidential Records Acts, was to print out email messages and stick them in great big paper piles and shove them into an Indiana Jones-style warehouse.

That approach might be acceptable according to the law, or even from the point of view of some sad professor somewhere who decides to devote his life to sifting through email messages. But it doesn't really provide tangible use. For realistic and practical use, this stuff has to be machine readable, machine addressable, and machine searchable.

What we need, from a historian's perspective, is the ability, for example, to take a Google-like engine and just be able to type in queries and see what comes back out of the data stream. I'd like to see that level of transparency. Again, for policy reasons, it's probably not going reach that level, but as administrations use digital messaging technology more and more, we're going to see increasing amounts of traffic that needs to be sifted through.

To make the full cache of presidential records useful to the populace — which is obviously never the priority of any White House — some sort of machine analysis is going to have to be a key part of the solution.

More to the point, hand sifting and hand managing all of that paper is going to become extremely expensive. Unless we decide to outsource sorting through America's most confidential documents to a third-world nation where the pay is cheaper, we'll need to turn to machine-based analytics.

The issue of availability in machine form is important. For example, just being able to search, Google-like, on a message archive is a far different sort of capability than having the entire dataset and being able to subject that to advanced heuristics.

So there's also the question of whether the raw data is made available to researchers versus being able to retrieve individual messages. Different kinds of research projects are going to need different kinds of things.

Politics becomes an issue, again, sadly. Opposition researchers, searching for political nuggets of joy, will want to search for various words and see if anybody says anything interesting, inappropriate, illegal, or even just out-of-context explosive.

Outside of politics, we should be able to look at what the whole dataset can tell us, what kind of knowledge we can derive by essentially observing, and even modeling the interaction of a White House over the space of eight years.

In that light, releasing the entire dataset to academic analysis is something that I'd really like to see. For the political reasons I've mentioned, that's probably not going to happen.

The question of legacy

Wrapping this up, one of the things that always exists in the minds of current presidents — as well as former presidents — is the question of their legacy. A president's legacy is often defined not by the true historical record, not by deep analysis, but by sound bites.

President George W Bush, like most presidents, was very controversial in his time. And, like most presidents, he's certainly going to want to be sure that his legacy is presented in the best possible light.

In that context, archivists are likely to want to go through all of those 200 million messages, examine each very carefully, and determine how they will fit with the legacy that President Bush wants to leave with future generations of Americans.

Presenting all those messages in the best light could take some time.

Our best wishes go out to all members of the Bush administration, the Bush family, and all the Americans who served in the White House, past and present. Thank you for your service.

Topics: Government, Storage


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.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Webmaster: McAfee Doesn't Like ...

    something on this page; a popup message said they blocked content that comes from potentially dangerous or suspicious sites. Just thought you would want to know.

    As of 4/26/13 0945 EDT
  • Presidential Email Access

    I agree with you that full access is desirable, both from the pure public interest point of view and from the point of view of opposition parties and campaigns (and in the LONG RUN, the latter is our best protection of the former). I also agree that it is unlikely to happen, partly because of politics, partly because of budgets (correct me if I am wrong, but aren't these Presidential libraries funded by private donations rather than the Federal Budget?), but also because most of their visitors have been and will be tourists who want the "gee-whiz" experience. There will be elementary through high school classes on field trips whose teachers will assign reports to be written, but for the kids it will be a temporary immersion in a past era, and they will notice the peripheral cultural environment in news videos, and the like.

    In the 1970's my wife and I toured the Truman Library in Independence, MO (we lived for a year in Kansas City), and most of what was on show was newspaper headlines and artifacts such as Truman's last car, hat, glasses. I had very few memories of Truman since his second term was about the same as my first four years of life, so that even as an adult with interest in history, the main difference between reading about him and his era at home and visiting the library was the physical immersion in late 1940's artifacts.

    So I expect that in future Presidential libraries, starting with the George W. Bush Library that just opened, searches through the archives will be machine POSSIBLE but also RESTRICTED as to what will show up to the general public, both with the onsite consoles and over the web. Aside from the desire to hide "dirty laundry" there is the crucial matter of truly, legitimately (?) classified references. Someone with clearance will have to screen and redact references (names of people and countries, weapons limitations, etc) that are CURRENTLY classified when the library is established. What are the chances that ANY Presidential Library has a budget to find and UN-redact information that is LATER declassified? We will have to depend upon the FOIA process for that (e.g. I found this email dated xxx that refers to yyy; is that still classified or can I see it now?).

    So partial cyber access? Sure, but probably biased to make a given President look good. Full cyber access? Budgets, time constraints, and secret classifications AT THE TIME OF OPENING will probably squash that idea.