I learned on National Public Radio this morning that the investigation of White House email practices, that began with an investigation into the firing of Federal prosecutors, has revealed a widespread practice in the Bush White House of erasing emails and evading the terms of the 1978 Presidential Records Act. According to NPR, there are only 130 emails remaining of any sent by Karl Rove in the first term. The Wall Street Journal reports that according to the House Oversight Committee chaired by Henry Waxman (R-California), 51 of 88 White House officials have been deleting their emails from the Republican National Committee server. You can read the full story here.
National Public Radio also reported this morning that lawyers for the RNC, who have acknowledged that White House advisors and staffers used RNC email accounts purposely to avoid going through the White House server and be subject to the terms of a federal statute (read: avoid public scrutiny and make prosecution more difficult), say that although they took steps to prevent the deletion of emails on the RNC server, a full four years of Rove’s emails prior to 2005 have gone missing and cannot be recovered. “Republicans,” so the Wall Street Journal writes with a straight face, “said there is no evidence that the law was violated or that the missing emails were of a government rather than political nature.” Well, I’m glad we cleared that up, Chief. Only the political emails. Thank God.
These people are legendary in their capacity for corruption and their need to treat the rest of us like fools. I bet dead Presidents like Grant and Harding are laughing their heads off as they clear space in Presidential Hell to leave room for the Bushies.
But I am going to suppress the incipient political rant and insert a history rant instead. Because, as Ron Hutchenson points out in the Kansas City Star, each Presidential administration has a legal obligation to preserve its own records. For those of us who rely on Presidential Libraries and other government archives, the increasing use of portable telephones and email has been a worry for this reason and other less nefarious ones. Why add the problem of portable phones? I’ll tell you why. Remember how, on the West Wing, Josh Lymon did a great deal of his important business walking from place to place talking urgently on the phone? I’ll tell you what you did not see: Josh Lymon taking out a notebook and making a memorandum of what transpired during the call. And yet, at least as late as the Reagan administration (I have not yet been to the G.H.W. Bush Library yet), telephone calls were recorded in some way, and ended up in memorandum form. I have spent most of my time at the Reagan Library working in the Elizabeth Dole papers, and there are tons of memos that she sent to the White House that are accounts of telephone calls she made doing the President’s business. All of Reagan’s advisors did — and this is a practice I can vouch for going at least as far back as the FDR White House. And it isn’t just that they needed a record of who had been spoken to and why to hold people to account or keep a policy discussion going; they had an acute sense of history. This sense of history was bolstered by people like Johnson and Nixon who taped things both so that they could screw people (I mean this figuratively, of course) and so they could have a full record of their ability to steer the country through perilous times.
OK, so cell phones disrupt this practice significantly. Why? Because the calls can’t be recorded, and no one is tied to a desk where they can jot down a few notes or call in a secretary to jot down a few notes.
Email poses a different sort of problem, and it isn’t clear how it will affect archival collections or the use of archives. By its sheer volume and ease, email creates the potential for a more significant and dense written record than we are used to — one that is potentially even unwieldy — by making a face-to-face meeting unnecessary, or by allowing people to do business they might normally do over the telephone, or by expanding the time available to do business. Look at how much email traffic any college professor creates in the course of a day: it is downright nineteenth century. In 1890, you could drop someone a line in the morning, and by 1:00 they would have told you whether they were coming to dinner or not. Email has, ironically, revived an epistolatory style that had vanished for several decades. So presumably, with email, we would have a denser sense of how political people live, whom their friends were, how policy documents developed as they were sent back and forth, and so on. Of course, you would have to have the tenaciousness of a Carolyn Eisenberg to knit all that information together in a way that makes sense, but it can be done, it is done, and very fine, useful political history is written this way. Knowing what people actually did while making policy, as opposed to what you assume they did because they were “like that” ideologically is what we call good history. Not leftist history, or conservative history, or unbiased history. Good. History.
But emails are far more fragile, even if you aren’t destroying them deliberately. The problem with email as a record, or potential archive, is the problem with all computer technologies: it becomes harder to access any electronic file the older it gets. How many of us have tried to open a Word Perfect file from six or seven years ago and found that it is inaccessible because the program itself is no longer compatible with the version that created the file? And at least many of us print those documents out. Who prints their email? I ask you.
Of course, archivists are working on these things, but they can’t preserve what they don’t have, and they don’t have access to servers that politicians don’t want anyone to know about, or emails that have been successfully deleted. Now it is Congress and the public that the Bushies are primarily concerned about, but it is historians as well. Their idea of an historical legacy is one that apparently is untroubled by the facts of what actually happened. It is not news that the Bush administration has declared a Cold War on historians: in his first year as President, W. issued a Presidential order that made access to modern Presidential collections far more restrictive, and cut off access to a great many documents that have nothing whatsoever to do with National Security and would have been released to the public in a timely manner as they were processed. The Act was also retroactive, and made the Freedom of Information Act Process more prolonged. I fil
ed FOIA’s for domestic policy documents a year and a half ago out at the Reagan that I haven’t heard a thing about; as I understand it, three years is not an unusual wait for domestic policy documents. Documents of government agencies are also affected by this administration’s zeal for concealing things. Those of us doing research in Justice Department papers at National Archives II in the first months after the Bush Administration took over had a lot of trouble getting an archivist’s attention, much less a table to work at, because Bush flunkies were busy reclassifying documents that had been released, and classifying documents that had never been secret in the first place. And to add insult to injury, National Archives funding has been cut even as Presidential libraries are becoming privately financed entities. There are documents you can’t get that haven’t been restricted: there just aren’t the financial resources available to pay trained people to process them.
Needless to say, the archivists at most federal facilities are beside themselves: at one Presidential library I visited I was asked to take the time to request documents I have no earthly use for, only because large numbers of what are called “piggy-backs” will push a FOIA up the priority list. In other words, archivists are working within what is left of the system to get as much to historians as possible. But I hope that the American Historical Association will have an opportunity to testify before Congress about what is happening, because historians should be beside themselves too. And I would like to see conservatives like David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh (not to mention a certain political historian who seems to be obsessed with college athletics), who have criticized liberal and radical historians for crimes of facticity, step up to the plate here. It isn’t unrealistic to imagine that what Bush and his cronies has done will damage political record keeping, and the ability to use political records in a timely manner, for some years to come, and it will certainly prevent any but the most superficial and ideological accounts of this administration from being written any time soon.