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Facing 21st Century Problems

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By Gautham Nagesh December 14, 2009

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Today's news that technicians have located 22 million missing Bush administration e-mails will be rightly viewed as a victory for the transparency community, particularly the two organizations that pursued the lawsuit. Failing to install an electronics record keeping system will go down as another failure for the Bush administration, albeit a relatively minor one.

Of course, the Bush White House was not exactly known for its commitment to transparency, unlike the current occupants. So a similar failure by President Obama would be much bigger news and much more likely to provoke a backlash among his supporters. That's why the administration issued a solicitation in September for technology to capture all comments, postings and content made my White House employees via social media platforms. At this point we haven't heard anything regarding that search, but my colleague Aliya Sternstein reported recently that the administration is struggling with the other half of the equation: archiving public comments made on White House sites.

The Obama administration also is much more reliant on technology than its predecessors, so it will be interesting to see how they will archive what will undoubtedly be a much higher volume of e-mails, comments and text messages. The availability of external communications tools also may make it tempting for staff members to circumvent controlled systems for purposes of official communication, even though doing so landed the Bush administration in hot water. That's why extra vigilance will be required from all parties.

So far it looks like the administration is attempting to address the problem by limiting staff members' access to technology. From Ben Smith:

At the very end of this educational White House video, a glimpse of the basket into which cabinet members dump their blackberries, and where they occasionally forget them...

...Instant messaging has gone from the place where (for reporters) campaigns dueled on a minute-to-minute basis to a form where the White House is, for fear of creating embarrassing records, silent. And top national security aides, in particular, spend much of the day in secure spaces where Blackberries are banned.

CNN has the picture.

Smith argues that the technology limitations of the White House (no instant messaging, no Twitter, no National Security Aides on Blackberries) are costing the White House politically because, well, they can't constantly stay in contact with people like Ben Smith. And he may be correct if you judge the administration's success on their ability to control the 24/7 media cycle within the Beltway. But the public is also likely to judge the Administration on how they handle the task of governing and the "White House bubble" as Smith calls it is undoubtedly an example of good governance.

There is little to be gained by allow national security officials to tweet about their whereabouts (or even inane topics like their lunch preferences). Likewise, any communications between reporters and White House officials via instant messaging would be subject to the Presidential Records Act and therefore by definition on the record, eliminating this town's two favorite modes of interaction with the press: off the record or on background. So it's unlikely any White House staffers would divulge anything sensitive over the medium, unless they were planning on circumventing the archival laws. Like the Bush administration.

But as President Obama has repeated many times, he is not his predecessor and he intends on running a much more open Administration that complies with both the letter and intent of transparency laws like the Presidential Records Act. So that means we don't get the instant gratification of seeing low-level Obama press aides tweet snarky responses to the latest Matt Taibbi piece. Even transparency has its price.

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