February 6, 1996
TOM BLANTON, EDITOR OF "WHITE HOUSE E-MAIL"
Three presidents have tried--and failed--to keep America from reading White House e-mail. But editor Tom Blanton and the non-governmental National Security Archive won a five-year legal battle to force the release of computer communications that flowed through the national security offices from 1980 to 1992.
Blanton has published these findings in "White House E-Mail: The Top-Secret Computer Messages The Reagan/Bush White House Tried to Destroy." Tom Blanton is available at email@example.com.
The highly emotional and often humorous e-mail contains seat-of-the-pants judgements and instant responses to world shaking issues.
Click to see a Forum Menu.
A question from Ben Howard of Silver Springs, Maryland
With this court decision allowing public access to White House e-mail, officials will be much more
careful in the future... even to the point of becoming overly secretive, not allowing the public to
read and hear things we've had access to before (they were burnt by your book). As more
technologically literate people come into office, they may use sophisticated encrypton methods
to keep communications private. Is encrypton legal if it bars access to public documents?
To Ben Howard:
I agree that there is a danger from too much public exposure of official
decision-making that they will become less candid and more secretive, thus
creating fewer records for history or for contemporary accountability.
But I also believe that at least two very significant
dynamics work the other way. First, the new electronic information
technologies themselves are creating a much larger historical record of
governmental decisions than we've had before. Few people talk about the
notion of the "paperless office" anymore, now that it's clear that
computers actually increase the amount of paper we all see, making
possible infinite duplication of documents and practically infinite
numbers of recipients. The White House implemented an e-mail system in
the early 1980's because it was becoming impossible to catch high
officials on the phone, or coordinate the schedule of meetings -- the
large bureaucracy couldn't function without these records, and now
they're being saved, because of our lawsuit.
Second, our laws recognize
that the danger diminishes with time, making public Presidential records
for example within 5 to 12 years after a President leaves office. Other
statutes like the Freedom of Information Act allow withholding (but not
forever) of records on grounds that release would chill candid
advice-giving within the government. As to your concern about
encryption, it is the case that many government records are already
encrypted -- I'm thinking of the electronic intercepts related to the
Rosenberg case that were recently declassified by the National
Security Agency for example -- but that doesn't remove them from coverage
by the records statutes. The government will still have to process these
records under Freedom of Information or other public release procedures
just as they currently process highly classified documents for release.
Encryption may make it harder and more expensive, and there, we taxpayers
will foot the bill.
A question from Richard Fisher of Scarsdale, New York
How did you decide what to include in your book? You had to put the e-mail into context, do you
feel you did that successfully? At which points did you feel uncomfortable or unable to provide
the full picture?
To Richard Fisher:
A good question, one faced by every author or editor. I picked the 250
e-mail messages printed in the book and the additional 250 in ASCII on
the diskette from a universe of about 4500 White House e-mail messages that
have been declassified to date, half of them from the various Iran-contra
investigations, and half from our lawsuit. The ones from our lawsuit we
picked from an abbreviated listing of about 42,000 messages written and
received by several dozen top White House officials between 1982 and
1989. We had the TO and FROM and DATE and SUBJECT lines for the 42,000,
and used several criteria to ask for the 2500 full texts to be
declassified: Were the authors and recipients high-level actors? Were
the dates significant in terms of world events or White House events?
Were there related messages that gave us a clue as to the content? Were
the subjects of widespread public interest, like "Gorbachev visit" or
"Iran-Iraq war" or "Star Wars" etc.? Because much of the Iran-contra
story had already been told, the vast majority of messages I included in
the book were from this sample of 2500, which was released to us just from
August 1994 through April 1995. I then had to piece together related
e-mail, because the releases were in no order whatsoever, not even by date.
And yes, I was frequently frustrated in not having the preceding or
following messages. In my annotations, I flag the messages where I
really lacked the context to tease out the full meaning, but in most
cases I was able to put together enough context from other documents or
public records even to figure out the shorthand used by the White House
My bottom line was to try and give an e-mail portrait of how the
White House really worked in the 1980's, at least in the national
security area where most of the e-mail came from, in the contemporaneous
words written by staffers who believed the e-mail would never see the
light of day.
A question from Myra Weinberg of Bethesda, Maryland
Where do we draw the lines? Is anyone's e-mail private? (the president's?)
I don't think this is a practical way to run a government. I don't want to know every petty quarrel
and irrelevant joke.
To Myra Weinberg:
I think the lines are pretty well drawn, at least where government e-mail
is concerned. It's in the private sector that we have more problems, and
fewer legal protections. Let me explain. As a country, we have set up
fairly elaborate legal guidelines for government records, in order to
protect personal privacy, in order to allow public accountability, in
order to save important records for posterity. Especially since
Watergate, our democracy has insisted that the White House of all places
has to be extra-accountable, precisely because it is so powerful.
Specific records laws require the President to save historically valuable
Through our lawsuit, we persuaded the courts to apply these
laws to e-mail as well, and I think my book shows how substantive much of
the e-mail really was. The President's e-mail, by law, is not private
over the long run, even though much of it can remain classified and
closed to the public for years after he leaves office. Yours and my
e-mail are in a different category. The problem for us is that our
e-mail is only protected legally when it is transmitted across a network
(under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act), but not when it
exists solely within an internal network. The Epson Computer company for
example fired an employee based on her supervisor reading her internal
e-mail (that she thought was private), and then won the lawsuit at the
California Supreme Court level on the basis that the computers belonged
to the company and so did her time, so the company's systems operators
had the right to read her e-mail. I think one lesson from the White
House e-mail case is that we all should know who our systems operators
are, and where our e-mail actually exists in terms of backups and
I do hear your point about jokes in the book, but I included a
chapter called "White House Mess" with e-mail practical jokes, flirting,
office parties and the like because I was surprised at how much of this
kind of e-mail there was -- we had specifically asked for only the most
substantive material -- and I thought the public had the right to know
that even White House e-mailers are human too.
A question from Stephanie Schragger of Lawrenceville, New Jersey
Did the e-mail contain things we didn't know before? Will it be used as evidence in any
To Stephanie Schragger:
To give you a short answer, I would cite the New York Times headline on
their news story about the book: "Revelations@White House." The long
answer would list the e-mail showing how Colin Powell and other top
Reagan administration officials helped "stiffen up" Saddam Hussein in the
1980's, how John Poindexter and Ollie North made a secret deal with
Noriega to help "clean up his image" in return for sabotage in Nicaragua,
how the Justice Department went along with a White House plan for a
reduced sentence for a convicted cocaine conspirator for fear he would
"spill the beans" about CIA covert operations in Honduras, how Robert
Dole double-crossed the Reagan White House on a key Congressional vote
(they commented "read Presidential candidate at work"), how Ross Perot
"sandbagged" another Reagan initiative on the POW/MIA issue, and many
What these e-mail really tell the reader is how top White
House staff talked to each other when they thought no one else was
listening, and that in and of itself amounts to quite a civics lesson.
No, I don't think these e-mail are being used in any current or upcoming
trials, since it's too late for any of the Poindexter-North et. al. court
cases; but I do find it fascinating that a number of candid Clinton White
House e-mail messages have figured in the Whitewater hearings to date.
A question from Jessica Bar of Portland, Oregon
What kind of arguments did you use in court? How did the courts classify the e-mail medium?
Have other cases like this come up before? What are the legal precedents?
To Jessica Bar:
The heart of the legal argument over the White House e-mail was whether
e-mail even qualifies as records under federal law. My organization, the
National Security Archive at George Washington University, believed the
e-mail was substantive enough, based on the Iran-contra e-mail that Ollie
North had written, that it should be saved for history. The government
took the position (and I should say that President Reagan's staff took it
first, led by then National Security Adviser Colin Powell) that the
e-mail was the equivalent of phone message slips, not records. The
National Archives & Records Administration did not have the backbone to
contradict the White House, and went along with the planned destruction
of the e-mail backup computer tapes from the Reagan years. We found out
and went to federal court the night before Bush's inauguration, and won
an injunction against the destruction.
Within days, we had signed up the
leading historical associations and the American Library Association as
co-plaintiffs in the case, and from January 1989 through the final
appeals court decision in August 1993, the government (through the
attorneys for three Presidents) stuck to the message slip argument,
despite the mounting evidence (much of it ordered released by the court)
that the e-mail was highly substantive, and in many cases represented the
only record in existence of certain policy discussions and decisions. No
previous court case had ever dealt with e-mail, but we had some good
precedent in the Watergate tapes case, in that those were also electronic
media, and the records statutes since the Watergate tapes all referred to
government records in electronic formats.
I should say that the Watergate
metaphor proved very helpful to the federal judges who ruled on the case;
after all, if the White House succeeded in destroying the backup computer
tapes, the result would be a gap considerably greater than the 18 and 1/2
minutes missing from the Nixon tapes. I recommend the court decision
from August 1993, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which
is cited in my bibliography in the book, for a complete listing of all
the relevant legal authorities and a precise summary of the legal
arguments on both sides.
A question from Daniel Hand of Los Angeles, CA
Is there any law, regulation, or ruling that requires public
offices such as the White House to retain their e-mail as a
public record, or is it merely something that has been done
as a matter of course? I recall Oliver North trying to delete all
of his e-mail unsuccesfully (or was it Poindexter...?), but
the messages being recovered from his hard disk later. Was
that just due to the fact that he was ignorant about what it
is that happens to deleted files?
To Daniel Hand:
Before our lawsuit there was no ruling that required the government to
retain its e-mail, and it was not retained. What we succeeded in doing
was getting the courts to apply the laws already on the books, most of
which had comprehensive definitions of the concept of "records" to be
saved that included electronic formats, to e-mail. Now, the National
Archives has issued -- under court order in our case -- new
regulations that apply not only to the White House but to all federal
agencies requiring the archiving of e-mail. This will not mean that
all e-mail will be saved, for in fact, less than 5% of all government paper
records are saved for history. But now e-mail will be appraised by
professional archivists, saved where appropriate, included in agencies'
information management regulations, and recognized as records across the
Your mention of Ollie North is right on target. That last
weekend he spent at the White House he called up over 750 of his e-mail
messages from his segment of the mainframe computer memory, and deleted
them one at a time. John Poindexter did the same, for over 5,000 of his
messages. According to later testimony at their respective trials, Ollie
did not know that the messages were saved on nightly backup tapes, while
Poindexter did know. But Poindexter also knew the backup tapes were only
kept for a couple of weeks, and then recycled and overwritten with new
A career military officer, Lt. Col. Patrick McGovern, who
has never gotten credit until I published this story in my book, set
aside the backup tapes instead of recycling after Poindexter and North
were fired, and that's how the investigators were able to put back
together the e-mail trail. That part of the Iran-contra story only made
me more angry in January 1989, when the Reagan White House tried to erase
all the backups. If we hadn't won our court order, the Reagan staff
including Colin Powell all of whom tried to distance themselves from
North and Poindexter, would have succeeded where Ollie and John got
caught. I guess it's also a lesson for all of us to find out where our
backups are and where our own e-mail might be living on.
A selected sample of responses from our visitors,
provided in addition to those answered by Tom Blanton.
I managed an e-mail system for several years at a mid-size corporation and always told users that e-mail was not secure OR private, so the debate on whether it should be kept private is irrelevant. If people want to communicate private matters to the White House, then they shouldn't use e-mail. Period. End of story.
I think that the government "e-mail" should be made available
after about five years. Many issues can be more acurately
viewed away from the day to day "game playing" of the
government. One example is Mr. McNamara "coming clean" on
the Vietnam situation. If the government can't be open it
should not exist. I personally think that the CIA is not
consistent with "our democracy".
Randy McLeod, Athens, TN
Executive e-mail should be private. It is often necessary to discuss
matters openly. Let's face it...this is not possible in the public forum.
E-mail is a valuble tool that improves office efficiency. If all executive
E-mail were to become public property it might as well be eliminated.
This would have the effect of denying a valuable tool to our leadership.
Encryption tools could be used but this adds to the time burden.