January 14th, 2009
03:49 PM ET

New White House moving rules

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/01/14/art.whitehouse2.jpg]

David Gewirtz | BIO
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing

Moving is never fun and when moving day is only six days away, the last thing you need is a new project. Unfortunately, the outgoing White House IT staff now has a new project - collecting and preserving White House email.

Earlier today, District Judge Henry H. Kennedy issued an emergency order requiring the Executive Office of the President to:

* search the workstations, and any .PST files, of any individuals who were employed between March 2003 and October 2005, and to collect and preserve all emails sent or received between March 2003 and October 2005
* issue a preservation notice to its employees directing them to surrender any media in their possession - that may contain e-mails sent or received between March 2003 and October 2005, and for the EOP to collect and preserve all such media.

Basically, the White House IT staff is supposed to dig through all their files for old email, and outgoing employees are ordered to turn over any drives, disks, CD-ROMs, thumb drives, etc. so the EOP can preserve these critical messages.

How practical is this?

This is, of course, great news for preserving the historical record of what went on during a particularly tumultuous time in recent American history. But - with only six days - the odds are not good that the White House IT staff will (or can) diligently search all their PCs and archive specific messages.

First, the White House IT team has repeatedly shown their inability to manage email messages properly, from the worst-practice technique of storing old email messages in thousands of rotting Outlook databases to an ill-advised messaging system transition in the middle of a war build-up.

Since we know (from previous Congressional testimony) that these messages aren't organized in any easy-to-manage manner, searching the workstations will involve a lot of ad-hoc and poorly controlled desktop lookups.

The preservation of American history should not rely on cranky IT geeks doing last minute lookups.

What should be done?

Given the unyielding deadline of the inauguration, the very best (and probably only) practical approach is to simply bundle everything up - computers, hard drives, disks, optical media, flash drives, external drives... everything - and stick it all on a couple of trucks bound for NARA.

This way, the National Archives and Records Administration can deal with searching, extracting, archiving, and preserving all this information with care and deliberation.

As long as the physical media storing these messages is preserved, there's no real rush to get at the messages. We just want to make sure they're available so they can be managed by proper digital curators for the benefit of history.

Where have all the emails gone?

There's good news and bad news with the order. The good news, of course, is that Judge Kennedy is making it a matter of court order that essential digital media be preserved. In addition to the practicality issue discussed above, the bad news is Judge Kennedy's order isn't far reaching enough.

First, he explicitly orders preservation of .PST files (a format that Outlook saves data in). But he doesn't order the preservation of .OST files. .OST files are offline data files used by Outlook to store messages that communication with a Microsoft Exchange email server. Those of us who use Exchange (like the White House), often have large caches of e-mail messages stored in these .OST files.

Second, the Judge doesn't order the preservation of all of the email sent by the White House.

Over the course of my investigation for the book “Where Have All The Emails Gone,” I estimated that more than 103.6 million White House email messages have been sent over the open Internet, via SMARTech, a 12-person Internet service provider located in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee. These messages were considered "political" email messages and, technically, couldn't be sent through White House servers or on White House gear.

The antiquated 1939 Hatch Act rears its ugly head again here. In her March 27, 2007 White House Press Briefing, then Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino stated:

"What I know — I checked into this — is that certain White House officials and staff members who have responsibilities that straddle both worlds, that have responsibilities in communication, regular interface with political organizations, do have a separate email account for those political communications. That is entirely appropriate, especially when you think of it in this case, that the practice is in place and followed precisely to avoid any inadvertent violations of what is called the Hatch Act. And so there are some members of the administration that do straddle both worlds. And so under an abundance of caution so that they don't violate the Hatch Act, they have these separate emails."

All of those email messages, running on separate, private, non-government managed email accounts, all 103.6 million+ of them, all of them have been left out of Judge Kennedy's order.

The sad part of this story is those messages, the ones sent outside of the direct management of the White House Office of the Chief Information Officer, might have been quite interesting to read.

One final note. In this particular case, it's a Republican administration leaving the White House. But don't think that it's just the Bush administration that's trying to keep email messages out of the public record. Ever since email became commonplace, every President, Ronald Reagan through George W. - including Bill Clinton - have tried to prevent email messages from being part of the public record.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.

Filed under: Barack Obama • Technology
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