Former Googler in hot water over White House email practices

Well, I have to say, I never expected to find myself agreeing with Congressman Darrell Issa. Even a little.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Well, I have to say, I never expected to find myself agreeing with Congressman Darrell Issa. Even a little.

Missing Bush-era White House email messages

The last time Congressman Issa and I disagreed, it was when he was questioning the Bush administration's then-CIO Theresa Payton about how millions of White House email messages might have gotten lost.

At that time, in February 2008, Representative Issa was a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and was trying to make the case that Lotus Notes was dead as an excuse for why the Bush White House switched from using Notes and Domino and started doing email archiving with thousands of loose PST files. Seriously.

The statement that did him in was, "I wouldn't want to do business with somebody still using Lotus Notes or still using wooden wagon wheels."

Needless to say, IBM was not amused. Notes and Domino are high-performance enterprise systems and Issa was dead wrong (he later apologized). You can read my whole story about that hearing in the original OutlookPower article.

By the way, my day job is as editor of both OutlookPower and DominoPower, and both Outlook/Exchange and Notes/Domino are excellent systems, so I don't want to hear any guff about either Microsoft or Lotus in the TalkBacks.

Email transparency in the Obama administration

Anyway, Issa's once again questioning White House IT practices, but this time he's targeting Obama administration Deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin.

Remember the buzz back when Google Buzz launched and Google, for some reason, decided to let everyone see everyone else' Buzz contact list? Well, apparently, this little oversight caught up with McLaughlin when it became apparent that McLaughlin's Buzz list in his White House job lists a whole hive of Google employees.

Now, you need to understand that the right wing is convinced Google is some sort of liberal puppet. They're often whining about Google News spotlighting liberal blogs. So when it appeared that McLaughlin is still friends with some people at his former employer, Issa expressed his concern. That's not where I agree with Issa. I'd expect a former Googler to talk with his old buddies in the same way I'd expect a former Halliburton CEO to stay in touch with his old colleagues.

But where I start to agree with Issa is his concern over the White House staffer's apparent use of Gmail as a communications tool that keeps the staffer's communication out of the eye of the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act. Issa's claim is that McLaughlin could use Gmail to hide his communications and "evade transparency laws".

The Hatch Act strikes again

I, too, am concerned about McLaughlin's use of Gmail, but that's where Darrell and I part company. That's because of another law that requires McLaughlin (and almost everyone else at the White House) to use Gmail or anything but Executive Office of the President mail servers: the Hatch Act.

Anyone who ever read my book Where Have All The Emails Gone? about the missing White House email from the Bush years knows I consider the Hatch Act of 1939 antiquated and out-of-date. I'm not going to go into all the gory details here. If you want to learn more, you can now download the book for free and read it yourself.

Suffice it to say, the Hatch Act demands that all non-government communication not use government resources. So, for example, if McLaughlin wants to have lunch with an old Google buddy to discuss golf, he must use a service like Gmail.

Now here's where Issa and I completely disagree on policy. He wants all those non-EOP email records open for anyone to read (and, you know, find fault with). I've made a strong case that the Hatch Act has to be overturned or amended, and that White House staffers should be required to use secure EOP email for all their communication and specifically prohibited from using outside email (which travels over the unsecured Internet), even for purely personal correspondence.

Again, it's a long story described in detail in the book, but the problem with allowing White House staffers to use any form of personal email is that it is an enormous security risk at the most strategic command center in the world.

My recommendation to Representative Issa

Rather than going after McLaughlin over partisan transparency issues, instead focus on revising the Hatch Act. If the law required all email communication by White House staffers to go through government EOP servers, it would all be examined and archived as a side-effect of the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act, and while we might not necessarily have transparency, we'd have accountability -- and security.

And yes, I know that leaves Facebook, Twitter, and IM as White House communications security and archiving issues -- we'll cover those in another article.

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.

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