Just Where Was That 'Missing' White House E-Mail?

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Last week I sat in on a chat with the wonks at Network World about what we'd like to see coming out of the Obama administration. My fellow chatters included Matthew Nickash (Considering Convergence), Jamie Heary (Cisco Security Expert); Craig Mathias (Nearpoints); Jeff Doyle (On IP Routing); and Curt Monash (A World of Bytes).

Among other things, we talked about the role of the new federal CTO, where tech infrastructure dollars should be spent (and who should spend them), balancing Net Neutrality with quality of service, the role of the FCC and the FTC, the need for new guarantees of personal privacy.

(You can find the entire transcript here.)

Me, I want to see an improved tech infrastructure, guarantees of Net Neutrality, and new privacy laws. But there at least 14 million other things I want - the White House emails that were miraculously located on backup tapes last week.

Does anybody else out there find it just a wee bit suspicious that six days before the Bush clan crawls away to Crawford, millions of "missing" emails turn up?

I understand they found them behind the couch, next to the plans for evacuating New Orleans and the weapons of mass destruction.

In fact, that's probably still only a portion of the email that has been flushed down the memory hole by what has been called "the most secretive administration" in our nation's history, at least since Nixon. (Personally I think they've out-Nixoned Nixon. At least he kept the tapes.)

And then there are the "private" accounts at sites like GWB43.com, managed by SmarTech in Chatanooga, Tennessee, but used for government business by people like Karl Rove.

The two parties bringing suit against the White House to preserve those emails, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive, are skeptical that the White House is telling the whole truth about those 14 million messages. They believe it may be simply a ruse to convince the court to dismiss the suits without actually having to produce anything.

Meanwhile, the White House is still claiming the offices of the president and vice president are immune from the federal court order that required every White House office to surrender all of its email.

(If you haven't been following this story, George Washington University maintains a timeline of the whole Bush email controversy here.)

Remember Oliver North and Fawn Hall deleting email and shredding documents in the Reagan administration? They were trying to cover up the Iran Contra scandal. What they didn't know was that perfect backups of every message were being captured by the White House's PROFS Notes email system. Without those emails, we would never have known the depth of that scandal.

So here's what I want. I want a clear, unflinching, nonpartisan look at what just happened over the past eight years. I want a new Justice Department that encourages citizens to look under the hood instead of sweeping things under the rug. I want a crack team of computer forensics experts to scour the backups and the computer systems at the White House and any other servers used for official business. I want thousands volunteers to pore over every single message and catalog them for the sake of history.

As I write this, during the last stumbling moments of the Bush Administration, this country faces huge problems - two wars, a crumbling global economy, a mideast situation that has once again hit the boiling point.

I applaud President Obama's desire to not dwell on the past and move the country forward. But before we can get where we're going, we need to know where we've been. Transparency in government is an essential thing, but it has to work in both directions. Only by understanding the past -- and correcting our mistakes (deliberate or otherwise) -- can we figure out the future.

I say let's start with those emails. It's where the bodies surely are buried.

Dan Tynan is taking the rest of the day off to watch the Inauguration and play in this freakish snow storm that just hit. You can find more of his unsolicited opinions at Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

This story, "Just Where Was That 'Missing' White House E-Mail?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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