Reagan Administration Emails Were the Dawn of Digital Transparency

National Archives

The NSC's early email system expanded to the rest of the White House in 1986.

Among the items in the Obama administration’s second action plan delivered to the international Open Government Partnership on Friday was a plan to use new auto-search tools to help clear Reagan-era White House email for declassification and release.

Readers may be surprised to learn email was widely enough used during the Reagan administration that an automated tool would be helpful in clearing it for declassification.

An early email system was being used broadly within the National Security Council by April 1985 and had expanded to the rest of the White House by November 1986, according to this timeline prepared by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

By the end of 1986, the system had encountered its first scandal when the Tower Commission, established by Reagan to investigate the Iran Contra scandal, demanded hundreds of emails related to the clandestine arms deal by National Security Adviser John Poindexter and NSC staffer Oliver North.

The National Security Archive collected and published many of those emails in 1995 following a multi-year Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuit. The Archive launched the suit on the final day of the Reagan administration to halt officials from erasing the emails as the first Bush administration took office.

This was the first time a federal judge explicitly expanded the Federal Records Act to include computer records, which officials had long claimed were exempt from the act, according to a 1993 New York Times story.

Here’s a telling paragraph from the Times story:

Federal agencies have had inconsistent guidelines, or at times none at all, about what computer records must be saved. Some, like the National Security Council, encouraged officials to make wide use of electronic mail because they believed that unlike paper records, computer records did not have to be preserved.

Some transparency advocates may breath a sigh of relief that those loopholes have largely been closed, allowing for the release of troves of FOIA’d and declassified government emails during the past two decades. It’s a sad commentary, though, for those who’ve watched today’s officials use personal emails, text messages and social media messages to evade the same disclosure requirements.