NEWS: George Bush's final email before the start of his presidency should have warned us what we'd lose.
In the coming decades, as the records of the Bush administration are slowly opened to the public, journalists and historians are sure to descend ravenously on the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas, seeking to pull back the curtain on an enigmatic presidency. But as they comb through the archives, they may be disappointed—for the White House, by way of both deliberate obstruction and startling negligence, has virtually ensured that a full accounting of its deeds and decisions will remain forever absent from the historical record.
In their own way, such archival lacunae will speak volumes about a White House that never tolerated being second-guessed and, as one Bush aide famously explained, felt it could create its "own reality." At times, the Bush White House seemed to revel in secrecy for secrecy's sake, such as when, in 2003, the vice president's office abruptly stopped reporting information about its use of classification to the National Archives Information Security Oversight Office, claiming that it was not part of the executive branch.
In blunt terms, says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, the Bush administration has at times operated "like a propaganda outfit," taking the view that making records public only leads to "media I-gotcha" stories—not a deeper understanding of American history. "I have some great worries about what the record of this administration is going to harvest, because they have done everything they can to slow down and obstruct the Freedom of Information Act," he says. "I'm afraid of the sanitization process that will occur, because they don't have a sense of historical integrity."
Bush set the tone early in his first term when he handed down a controversial executive order, drafted by then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, that gave current and former presidents and vice presidents, along with their heirs, unprecedented authority to block the disclosure of White House records. "What this amounts to is that past presidents' grandchildren can, in effect, be given executive privilege," says Anna K. Nelson, the distinguished historian in residence at American University. Nelson, along with many other historians, saw the move as a transparent effort to protect the records of the president's father, George H.W. Bush; some Reagan- and Bush Sr.-era material has indeed been delayed or withheld since the executive order.
To George Mason University historian Martin Sherwin, the order was nothing short of a "frontal assault" on open government. "After their tenure has expired, it is the public's right to know, in a timely manner, the details of how they went about fulfilling their responsibilities," he says. "Their actions are not a privileged secret that they and their families have the right to control. That is how dictatorships operate."
Historian Brinkley worries, too, that administration alumni might try to tamper with the records in other ways—namely, by pilfering potentially embarrassing documents. It's not such a far-fetched scenario, he says, considering that Clinton administration national security adviser Sandy Berger was caught purloining from the National Archives classified memos that he considered damaging. "I'm worried that we're going to get nothing but hagiography and sanitized records at the Bush library," he says. "We really need to have a lot of oversight when the trucks move everything out of the White House."
Already there is reason to believe that a considerable number of White House records—in the form of emails—have been lost to history. When congressional investigators pored over documents related to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in 2006, they noticed that some officials were conducting White House business via email addresses at the Republican National Committee—an apparent violation of the Presidential Records Act, which requires White House staffers to preserve their records, including emails. (A similar law applies to federal agencies.) And a former administration IT official, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, confirms that, at least in some cases, that was no accident: To prevent their messages from cropping up in the Bush presidential library one day, "some people, recognizing that email was being archived, just went completely around" the White House system.
No fewer than 88 White House staffers, an investigation by the House oversight committee revealed, used rnc addresses—among them Andrew Card, Dan Bartlett, Karen Hughes, and Karl Rove. (According to records obtained by the committee, when Abramoff mistakenly emailed his former assistant and then-Rove aide Susan Ralston at her White House address once, he was reminded by a colleague that the White House email system "might actually limit what they can do to help us, especially since there could be lawsuits, etc.")
By the time Congress asked the rnc about the email records, it turned out that nothing had been saved for 51 of the 88 White House staffers, and there were incomplete records for the rest. "We will never know what we don't have," a Democratic oversight staffer told me. "We don't know what's there. We don't know what individuals deleted. We don't know what percentage was saved." For Rove himself, the rnc can't account for any outgoing emails prior to November 2003—even though Rove was known to be a prolific user of his rnc email and BlackBerry, sending as many as 200 messages a day.
The Bush administration would hardly be the first to come under fire for its shoddy email retention practices. Back in the '80s, when the Reagan White House used an archaic system known as profs (Professional Office System), Oliver North and John Poindexter attempted to erase exchanges connected to the Iran-Contra deal. The Clinton White House was accused of destroying thousands of messages related to congressional inquiries, including the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The emails were eventually restored at a cost of about $12 million; part of the problem was attributed to a technical glitch in the White House email system, which failed to archive incoming messages for users whose names began with the letter D.
But the historical stakes of preserving email records are higher now than ever before—which makes the Bush administration's failure to comply with basic IT best practices all the more critical. According to one estimate, the Bush White House may have lost at least 5 million emails—not including those sent using rnc addresses.
Shortly after taking office, the administration switched to a new email system, the same one Bush/Cheney staffers had used on the campaign trail. As it turned out, though, this platform was incompatible with the Clinton-era archiving system—which, the former White House IT official told me, was flawed to begin with. (Among other things, it couldn't capture attachments.) According to another former White House IT staffer, Steven McDevitt, "There was a great deal of concern about proceeding...without having an adequate email records-management solution."
The project moved forward anyway, with a temporary archiving process that was "manual," "primitive," and lacked any safeguards to ensure that saved emails had not been modified or tampered with, McDevitt wrote in a letter to the House oversight committee in February. All told, he said, "the risk that data would be lost was high." (The White House is not the only offender in this regard: In June, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others, were relying on nothing better than "print and file" email archiving.)
The National Archives, too, cautioned the White House as early as January 2004 that it was "operating at risk." Nearly two years later, a White House "discussion document" dated October 2005 warned that "lost or misplaced email archives may result in an inability to meet statutory requirements," a scenario that created "legal and political risk" for the Bush administration. Yet the administration made no apparent effort to recover the missing messages. Instead, it reacted by stonewalling National Archives officials. McDevitt says he was specifically instructed not to discuss "potential email retention issues" with Archives staffers.
An analysis by the White House technical staff conducted in late 2005 found hundreds of days between March 2003 and August 2005 when various White House divisions either had no archived messages or displayed suspiciously low traffic—including nearly a week's worth of missing mail from the vice president's office that happened to coincide with the launch of a criminal probe into the leak of Valerie Plame's covert status. The former IT official, who departed the White House before the analysis was conducted, says he is unsure exactly what that means: "There could be a number of explanations, including the fact that these folks knew all emails were archived and decided not to send email for a while. What I don't know is whether they were all explored and whether there is definitive technical evidence" that emails are missing. He added, ruefully, "Now we've created this whirlwind that won't go away. Anything that has to do with the Bush administration, people just want to believe the worst."
To David Gewirtz, who publishes Web magazines devoted to the minutiae of email technology, the Bush administration's approach to archiving signals either shocking incompetence or "something slightly more nefarious." When I met him in June at a hotel in suburban Virginia, where he'd just addressed a conference of computer consultants on the topic of the White House emails, he told me the administration has relied on "the industry's worst practices in the way they are archiving emails." When he described the process to the audience of techies, he said, the room erupted with laughter.
"The White House has done everything the hardest and dumbest way possible for this type of project," Gewirtz—who has also written a book on the White House email controversy—added. "From a historical point of view, you're probably not talking about a real crime, but it is a real shame. This is our heritage that's being lost."
Prodded by a congressional inquiry, pleas from the National Archives, and lawsuits filed by two watchdog groups, the White House has ever so slowly taken steps to address its email problem. Declaring the 2005 audit flawed, it began by launching another analysis in the spring of 2007 that it promised would be completed by that summer; the study is still in progress, though the White House says it has been able to recover some emails along the way. The sluggish pace leaves some observers wondering whether the administration is intentionally drawing out the process until January 2009, when the whole thing becomes someone else's problem. "Everybody's concern is that any audit should have started a long time ago," the oversight staffer says. "There's clearly a time issue here."
Indeed, even now, six years after dismantling the Clinton-era archiving system, the Bush administration has yet to implement a permanent replacement—even though it had one ready to go years ago. In the fall of 2006, the White House's new chief information officer, Theresa Payton, decided to shelve the staff's proposed system because, as she explained to representatives from the National Archives, it offered no way to distinguish between personal and official email records. The former Bush IT official told me he found this decision "quite surprising" and that as far as he knew the archiving system was "fully vetted and tested."
"From a technology perspective, I don't understand why it wasn't implemented," he said. "But it's not just technology alone that drives these decisions."
In the end, even if the administration is successful in recovering any lost emails, presidential historians may not unearth any messages signed "gwb"—and not because the president isn't a fan of email. In January 2001, three days before he took the oath of office, the soon-to-be president sent a mass email to close friends and family to announce that they wouldn't be hearing from him for a while—at least not electronically. "Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace," he wrote in his final missive, which, ironically, was obtained by the press. "This saddens me." And with that, G94B@aol.com officially signed off.
Daniel Schulman is an associate editor at the Mother Jones Washington, DC, Bureau.Illustration: Harry Campbell | Cartoon by Steve Brodn
Interviewed by Bloomberg’s Al Hunt this weekend, Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) campaign manager Rick Davis said McCain would no longer campaign with President Bush:
Q: Do you expect to campaign with President Bush this fall?
DAVIS: No. Again. We’ve turned that page. I mean, that page is gone.
The campaign’s position is a stark departure from McCain’s rhetoric just six months ago when he received Bush’s endorsement. At the time, McCain said he said he would have “as much possible campaigning” with Bush:
McCAIN: I intend to have as much possible campaigning events together, as it is in keeping with the President’s heavy schedule. And I look forward to that opportunity. I look forward to the chance to bring our message to America. … I hope that the President will find time from his busy schedule to be out on the campaign trail with me.
Watch a compilation:
According to a September USA Today/Gallup poll, 64 percent of voters are concerned that McCain “would pursue policies that are too similar to what George W. Bush has pursued.”
By Gregor Peter Schmitz
McCain's popularity has long rested on his being a man of the center. The media liked him for his openness. Now, though, McCain has hired a number of former Bush advisors, and his campaign is swerving to the right.
On Tuesday evening in St. Paul, it almost seemed as though the Republicans didn't want to see the end of the Bush era. Just before 7:30 p.m., applause began rippling through the XCel Center. In the Fox News studio, just under the arena's rafters, President George W. Bush's former chief strategist Karl Rove had sat down for an interview. One row of delegates after another stood up, turned toward Rove and waved excitedly. Rove waved graciously back.
President George W. Bush on the big screen at McCain's convention.
Bush began presidentially, and spoke about the victims of Hurricane Gustav in America's South. But then he turned to the subject of John McCain -- and immediately transformed himself into a campaigner. McCain, he said, is a "great American" who is "ready to lead."
"If the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain's resolve to do what is best for his country, you can be sure the angry left never will," Bush intoned. A new wave of cheering broke over the hall.
The fiery speech seemed like a passing of the baton from Bush to McCain -- even if the Republican candidate's campaign team is relieved that Hurricane Gustav prevented the president from attending the convention in person. McCain, after all, is eager to avoid the impression that he is a politician in the Bush mold.
And yet, McCain's campaign is beginning to tell a different story. The Senator from Arizona is borrowing heavily from Bush's strategy and style. Time Magazine, which brought out a special issue for the Republican Convention, wrote that McCain has perfected the Bush-style campaign.
It is a shift directed by those who will never be seen on the stage at St. Paul -- strategists like Steve Schmidt, for example. Schmidt was responsible for Bush's so-called "war room" and he is known for his quick-hitting attacks on the Democrats. Known as "The Bullet," the 37-year-old Schmidt was promoted in July to oversee campaign strategy and operations. One of the first things he did was to tell McCain that if he didn't become more disciplined, he would never be able to win the election in November.
PHOTO GALLERY: THE REPUBLICANS AND THEIR CONVENTION
Click on a picture to launch the image gallery (12 Photos)
Since then, McCain's campaign has become much more aggressive, airing television spots that, for example, refer to Barack Obama as a mere "celebrity" and compare him to stars such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He has also narrowly focused the campaign's message and it is one that McCain has been doing his best to follow: "Country First." The shift in direction has already shown results. Despite the successful Democratic national convention last week, McCain hardly dropped at all in the polls.
Still, McCain's "Bush campaign" has some Republicans worried as their own convention gets rolling. Schmidt and his team were able to come up with a highly professional reaction to Hurricane Gustav and could present McCain as a decisive manager in times of crisis. They were also able to show their party as one which had learned from Bush's Hurricane Katrina debacle.
But at the same time, the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain's vice presidential candidate was one which came as a surprise to the Republicans -- and a not entirely pleasant one for moderates within the party. Since then, it has become clear just how spontaneous the decision was. The last two days have been dominated by coverage of Palin's pregnant, unmarried 17-year-old daughter, her lack of experience and her extremely conservative views on environmental issues.
OBAMA/BIDEN VS. MCCAIN/PALIN
And choosing Palin could work out for McCain, in the short term at least. Every mention of her name at the convention, dominated as it is by conservative Republicans, has been cascaded with applause. But the move could also undermine McCain's image as a centrist politician, an image that has so far allowed him to maintain a level of popularity far higher than that of a Republican Party damaged by the unpopularity of the Bush administration.
Campaign á la Bush Frightens the Center
It is an image that carried McCain to the nomination -- and it is one that would be dangerous to abandon before November. Matthew Dowd, who served as the chief strategist for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, believes that McCain can't just focus on the Republican base, as Bush was able to, but must also pull votes from the center, where the Democrats currently have more appeal than the Republicans do.
A Bush-style campaign could very well scare off these centrist voters. Still, that's the direction McCain has been headed over the past weeks and months. His embrace of tax cuts as well as his stumping for offshore oil drilling have both made him look dangerously like a continuation of the administration of his predecessor.
And he's let himself be pried away from the press by Schmidt -- a fairly radical about-face for the former media darling. He used to give impromptu responses to reporters' questions, but now McCain is more likely to stiffly read out prepared statements. In this week's issue, Time magazine published a bizarre interview with McCain in which he responded to questions by loudly and angrily barking: "Read my books!"
On Tuesday, McCain cancelled a scheduled appearance on the CNN show Larry King Live because he was upset about the way another CNN host, Campbell Brown, aggressively questioned a McCain spokesman called Tucker Bounds on the foreign policy credentials of Sarah Palin.
PHOTO GALLERY: VICE-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE SARAH PALIN
Click on a picture to launch the image gallery (12 Photos)
Schmidt was also unhappy about the media's handling of Palin when it came to the news that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. "It used to be that a lot of those smears and the crap on the Internet stayed out of the newsrooms of serious journalists," he seethed, as if journalists had made up the story themselves. Lines like that find a welcome audience in the Republican base, which takes great pleasure in ranting about the alleged liberal conspiracy of the US media.
Election expert Joe Klein is appalled by the fact that McCain's campaign payroll now includes the former Bush strategists who contrived the dirty tricks that helped Bush steal the nomination from McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries. And this despite the fact that, back then, McCain said that he would refrain from fighting back with similarly dirty tricks.
The bitterest example of this, of course, was when people working for the Bush campaign made phone calls to South Carolina voters in which they insinuated that the black child McCain had adopted from Bangladesh was actually his own bastard child. McCain raged against the "smear campaign" and Tucker Eskew, the political consultant allegedly behind it.
Last week, McCain announced the hiring of a new advisor for his campaign against Obama. His name: Tucker Eskew.