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

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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).

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