From NPR, an interview with a government watchdog and a historian on the WH e-mails

The Email Trail
NPR
March 30, 2007

Why no emails from Alberto Gonzales in the prosecutor purge document dumps? He apparently doesn’t use email. Ditto for other Cabinet members. Now some are questioning whether Bush staffers avoid email altogether, or just their official accounts. Government watchdog Melanie Sloan says there’s illegal obfuscation at work. And historian Anna Nelson explains the law that made presidential communications part of the public record.

Read the transcript of the interview, here, or listen to it, here.

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2 Responses to From NPR, an interview with a government watchdog and a historian on the WH e-mails

  1. Maarja Krusten says:

    The potential for trouble was evident as far back as 2004 when U.S. News & World Report first noted alarm by some in the White House at the news that President Clinton’s Presidential Library would be releasing some of his administration’s emails. That reportedly brought a reaction of going off system (“It’s Yahoo, Baby”) among some people at the Bush White House. That may only have been a handful of people but the news report from 2004 should have been enough to trigger efforts to provide additional compliance training. On the surface, this looks like a records management /legal issue. Problems with records usually come down to either a lack of what professionals refer to as “records awareness” or insufficient guidance and monitoring by corporate lawyers. Of course, you have to have buy in to the broader concepts that underlie recordkeeping, archival preservation, etc. Since those are compliance issues, I think that usually is up an institution’s lawyers to ensure. Different laws and regulations apply to various institutions in the public and private sector, including some academic institutions, you have to make sure you’re doing what is appropriate and required, obviously.

    Submitted from home at 8:22 am Eastern time

  2. Maarja Krusten says:

    The flap about White House email started me thinking about how difficult this all can be. Here are a few observations, not directed at any one party or administration, but drawn from my work with the Nixon tapes and my decades of study of a number of Presidents, Democratic and Republican:

    THE PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO KNOW

    I support the public’s right to know and a nonpartisan objective process for releasing records after an administration ends. But I also recognize that in many cases, there are competing dynamics at play. That’s one reason I am struggling still with figuring out at what point you generally should open deliberative records held within an archives.

    As to record keeping generally, don’t we all sometimes cling to the myth of infallibility in our professional lives? That’s setting aside people who may be corrupt or may have engaged in criminal conduct. (Think of the stories we have read about shredding in the corporate world.) Records have a tendency to reveal the real deal. Depending on where people work, the principles that undergird records management and archival work fundamentally may go against human nature. There has to be a compelling reason to overcome the instinct for self preservation.

    In regulating archives and recordkeeping, statute books don’t take into account the strong imperative for self preservation. That leaves many records managers and archivists to struggle on their own. The public largely is oblivious to this. And historians, whose jobs require many skills (critical analysis, good writing and speaking ability), but not necessarily the ability to step into the shoes of others, rarely consider how they best tactically or strategically can help the records managers and archivists that they depend on.

    2. CAMPAIGNING VS. GOVERNING

    Campaigning largely is unregulated except for its financial side. Of course, campaign workers should avoid breaking criminal laws. But let’s face it, in many areas, candidates and those who work for them simply rely on their own sense of ethics and boundaries. A candidate may justify what campaign operatives do on his behalf, based on the ultimate goal of attaining office. Some campaigns rely more on dirty tricks than others. Most of what happens during a campaign is and remains unknown. (Nixon happened to get caught. But consider what later history books suggest that some of his predecessors got away with.) This is an area where the public largely has no right to know. That seems like a positive for candidates – it largely gives their operatives a free hand — but the lack of regulation may turn out to have a negative side.

    That’s because once in office, the candidate, now President, suddenly faces a new and different world in terms of records and compliance. He also needs to consider potential oversight while in office and eventual disclosure of records later at a Presidential Library. A President and his aides move from an environment where people often act operationally without direct orders from the candidate, perhaps in an effort to insulate him (“plausible deniability”), to one that is strictly regulated. Sometimes, as in the case of Craig Livingstone during the 1990s, their actions with records within the White Hosue draw attention and result in litigation. White House staff have to consider all sorts of rules and regulations: the Hatch Act, the Privacy Act, the Presidential Records Act, the Federal Records Act. The moral relativism of the campaign world, where anything goes, can get you into trouble in such an environment.

    3. LAWYERS

    From the start of an administration, lawyers should prepare a President and his staff to comply with recordkeeping laws and regulations. They need to explain to them the purpose and underlying concepts. But many Presidents seem to surround themselves with lawyers whose skills lie mostly in being litigators. How many lawyers functionally or personally have the skills, ability — and opportunity — to act as ethics officers, not just as attack dogs or as loyal defenders of the people at the top?

    The insularity of life at the top also presents challenges. You can lose sight of how many laws and regulations ordinary people comply with routinely in the workplace. Or a sense of your own power may lead you to limit what your lawyers can tell you. As Nixon famously said, “when the President does it, it’s not illegal.” While released records later showed how Nixon grumbled that he wanted to get rid of lawyers who told him he couldn’t do some things, in the end, he should have given more thought to why they offered such advice.

    At any rate, it takes enormous effort for this to work well, in an environemnt where people share the natural and human desire for self preservation but deal daily with issues of critical importance. Many things have to align right for issues related to the creation, preservation, and eventual release of historical records to work smoothly. It never surprises me that things may go awry some times.

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