Keeping the Obama administration honest in the Facebook age

I strongly recommend everything -- everything -- should be recorded for posterity.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

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.

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