A potential gap in the White House's e-mail retention policy has been exposed, ironically by one of the officials overseeing that policy. One congressman wants White House deputy CTO Andrew McLaughlin to explain how messages sent to and from White House staff via Web e-mail systems are preserved. The scrutiny comes after McLaughlin apparently used Gmail for some of his own correspondence.
Here's the background: McLaughlin, who is deputy CTO of Internet Policy in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, signed on to Google's recently launched Buzz service, only to realize that his e-mail/chat contacts were exposed to public view in the form of a "followers" list. McLaughlin's followers list included some two dozen Google employees, which is notable because McLaughlin was Google's chief Washington lobbyist before joining the Obama administration. That led to questions over whether McLaughlin, as deputy CTO, had been using Gmail for work-related correspondence in lieu of the White House e-mail system. Of course, there are other plausible explanations, such as the possibility that McLaughlin used Gmail only for messages that were personal in nature. Nevertheless, the Consumer Watchdog organization has filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking copies of e-mails between McLaughlin and Google employees. (For more on McLaughlin's Buzz experience, see this article by Big Government.)
The latest twist is that on April 8 Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to McLaughlin seeking information on how the whole episode jibes with the requirement of the Presidential Records Act and the Electronic Message Preservation Act. "The fact that you sought to communicate privately with a select group of individuals, many of whom possess significant influence in industry and government, with your Gmail account raises the specter that you were attempting to circumvent the laws associated with openness and transparency," Issa writes.
Among the questions the congressman wants answered by April 22 are: What is the OSTP policy for ensuring that all messages sent or received by White House staff on private, non-governmental e-mail accounts are preserved according to law? And, who makes the decision about whether an e-mail is categorized as a presidential record?
Issa should be aware that just three months ago, White House CIO Brook Colangelo provided a detailed update on the e-mail storage and archiving system used by the Executive Office of the President for unclassified e-mail. In that document, Colangelo noted that White House staff do not have the ability to access personal e-mail accounts through the EOP network because it "blocks all known Web-based external e-mail systems."
All of which raises a few questions beyond those that Issa has put on the table:
What is OSTP policy for use of Web-based mail systems by White House and other government employees? Given that the EOP network blocks Web-based e-mail, is it possible for White House employees to use such systems from their offices or mobile devices using some kind of workaround?
Should McLaughlin recuse himself from policy making in this area until the dust settles on his use of Gmail in this matter?
The backdrop for all of this is that government employees, like those in the private sector, are using a range of Web tools to get things done in a work environment that increasingly blurs their professional and personal lives. As Congressman Issa seeks clarification on what types of correspondence get classified as presidential records, he may find such distinctions are harder to draw among our Blackberry-equipped, always-connected federal officials.
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