Why the president won't send you an email.
Jun 9, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 37 • By JAIME SNEIDER
John McCain and Barack Obama are often seen sending emails between campaign rallies as they barnstorm the country. But whichever man is elected president will face a predicament: unholster his Blackberry or risk political suicide. As George W. Bush told a small group of friends just days before being sworn in, "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." In the last eight years, President Bush has not sent a single message. And future presidents are all but certain to follow in his footsteps.
Although liberal critics often claim that Bush prefers living in a bubble, the president seemed to regret giving up email. He used it as governor of Texas, and he told reporters last week that he eagerly looked forward to signing on again once his second term comes to a close. Recalling the good old days when he had a computer, he remarked, "I stayed in touch with all kinds of people around the country, firing off emails at all times of the day to stay in touch with my pals. . . . [T]here's no better way to communicate."
The potential benefits of using email in executing the duties of commander in chief are as self-evident as the risks. Because the number of people who have physical access to the president is inevitably quite small, email would empower him to seek counsel from a greater number of people both inside the White House and outside Washington.
Yet if the president did use email, there would be no guarantee his minute-to-minute communiqués would remain confidential. And it would be foolish to assume there is no cause for concern so long as the president obeys the law. Just consider the ridicule were the media to get wind of a late-night email to the White House Mess requesting a bag of Cheetos.
There is not a long track record, but President Bush is not the first president to give up email altogether in light of the possibility politically sensitive and embarrassing discussions could be disclosed. Aside from the occasional photo-op, Bill Clinton did not use email. Vice President Cheney used email briefly, but gave it up soon after. And Vice President Gore's use of email was a source of controversy when the House of Representatives subpoenaed his correspondence in investigating campaign finance abuses, and the Office of the Vice President claimed more than a year of his messages had disappeared.
The nub of the problem is this: If the president uses email, it will be subject to the Presidential Records Act, as is all executive-branch email. This law requires electronic records to be copied and saved to a central database. Anyone from the public can access these records 12 years after a president leaves office, and Congress has put forward a variety of legal pretexts for receiving such information much sooner.
Executive branch email is not under lock and key. Emails about secret office romances--and, dare I speculate, evidence of an extramarital affair or two--are just waiting to be uncovered among the gazillions of messages people in the White House exchange on a daily basis. Nobody has much to worry about unless nominated for a more significant position in a future administration, at which time a brigade of opposition researchers and journalists will descend on the applicable presidential library and dig up every last embarrassment, however trivial.
Poorly worded emails sent in the spur of a moment have already derailed careers. Consider the controversy surrounding the firing of several U.S. attorneys. The resignations of Kyle Sampson and Monica Goodling, both top-ranking Department of Justice officials, were prompted by the disclosure of their emails under threat of congressional subpoena. In Goodling's case, the focus of criticism was not even her comments about the U.S. attorneys. Rather, the occasional reference to God and a tagline quoting the president ("[W]e know that when the work is hard, the proper response is not retreat; it is courage") were used to brand her a political hack.
Although former FEMA chief Michael Brown is unworthy of much sympathy, he provides still another interesting case study. Apparently conditions at the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were not alone sufficient to demonstrate his incompetence. Reporters and congressmen also harped on the fact that Brownie emailed his press secretary in advance of a television-appearance to ask, "Tie or not for tonight? Button-down blue shirt?" in the midst of the storm. Yet one can only imagine what a survey of congressional email in the hours before a Meet the Press appearance would uncover. No, Senator, I really don't think you can pull off a plaid tie with a plaid shirt and madras blazer.