Democratic Underground

White House Website Scrubbing: Far-Reaching, Systematic, in Violation of 'The Rule of Law'

October 26, 2004
By Brad Friedman

In 1978 the Presidential Records Act was instituted in the wake of the Nixon Administration's legal imbroglio over the status of presidential documents. According to the National Archives, the Act "changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public."

On Nov. 1, 2001 George W. Bush issued Executive Order #13233 which modified some of the measures of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. And in a bit of Orwellian irony that has now become all too recognizable in the current administration, Executive Order #13233 is not listed at all on the White House website page entitled Executive Orders Issued by President Bush.

Despite the changes implemented by George W. Bush, the Presidential Records Act still "Defines and states public ownership of the records" as the National Archives points out.

The National Archives also specifically states that:

Presidential records are defined as:

Documentary materials, or an reasonably segregable portion thereof, created or received by the President, his immediate staff, or a unit or individual or the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise and assist the President, in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have and effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President [44 U.S.C. 2201(2)].

These records can be in a variety of media, including paper, audiovisual, and electronic.

The Clinton Administration was the first to have a White House website, and indeed the original architects of that site apparently took great pains to create a precise "versioning" system to capture various changes to the content over time. As the National Archives website on this notes; "These versions are historical materials." One can still view all of the various versions of the Clinton White House's website via that link.

Over the past several weeks, I have been chronicling the stark difference in the Bush Administration's management of their White House website. I caught them red-handed as they hastily removed the website's list of Iraq "coalition" members just after the V.P. Debate when Dick Cheney accused John Edwards of being "dead wrong" for not counting Iraqi casualties as a percentage of "coalition casualties." I caught them again after the third Presidential Debate when the White House removed damning video footage of Bush admitting at a press conference that he was "not truly that concerned" about bin Laden - precisely as John Kerry had charged during the debate.

Continued investigation reveals a great deal of information that has vanished from the site. Some of it is easily spotted, such as the link to "Secretary of Treasury Paul O'Neil testifies about terrorism risk insurance" still displayed on this page (a sample from that page is pictured at right) but which now leads instead to a "The file you have attempted to access cannot be found" page.

More troubling, however, are those pages which have simply been modified, or deleted all together and which are not tracked and/or cached (and are therefore lost to the historic record entirely, as discussed shortly) by Internet archive and caching sites. Enormous sections of the White House website then are not indexed or cached at all by these external public archive and search engines.

Therefore, any number of modified and/or deleted pages of "historical material" may now be almost impossible to track, record or even notice.

Notably, I've documented here just a few examples of audio and video material that has been "disappeared" from the website. Such audio and video media is not indexed or cached at all on any site by search and archive sites. So the material systematically removed from hundreds of pages at whitehouse.gov may well be gone for good.

A few critics have suggested that the White House website has a policy of removing old media after a year or so for space reasons. Given how inexpensive digital storage space has become and the vast amount of material already catalogued on their website, such an explanation would constitute a strange reason to delete "historical material." As well, such a practice is likely illegal, as defined by the Presidential Records Act.

But even if one cites "lack of storage space" as a plausible explanation for some of the vanished material, it certainly could not be used to explain their purposefully removed link to their "List of Coalition Members." Good luck trying to find any up-to-date listing of coalition countries on the whitehouse.gov website at this point. Pretty remarkable considering we're in the middle of a war, and Bush/Cheney are parading around the country talking about the strengths of this - apparently mysterious - "coalition of the willing."

The AFP wire story that finally picked up on our original reporting at the end of last week offered this "official" explanation:

"This is not unusual. If there is incorrect, or out of date information, we take it down," White House spokesman Jimmy Orr told AFP. "What we're doing right now, with the entire Iraq site, is we're updating the information."

So, in other words, a simple list of coalition member countries that had previously been updated regularly (here's an example of one from April of 2003) to add new countries whenever one came on board, can no longer just be updated to add or remove countries as they come and go. Now, they must just "take it down" entirely instead of updating the information on the page.

Of course they must. With Bush/Cheney running around the country telling folks that Kerry/Edwards are disrespecting coalition countries like Iraq (never, ever, ever named as a "Coalition Country" on any White House or State Dept. or Pentagon website page that I've been able to find - and those other websites have also been scrubbed apparently of such information) they've now got to use the publically owned White House website - in possible violation of both the Presidential Records Act and existing campaign laws - to scrub any evidence that might show the administration is actively lying to America.

Anyone willing to bet that the "entire Iraq site" won't be "updated" accurately again until some time after, oh, say, November 2nd?

As this story has gained momentum in the blogosphere, there has been a critic or two - okay, one, Jim Gilliam, one of the producers of the excellent Outfoxed documentary - who seems to be backing up the White House line from the AFP article suggesting the White House is simply removing old media after a year, as some sort of a space-saving policy.

He is wrong. Clearly, on the "Coalition List" issue there is no denying their purposeful cover-up to avoid telling America who the coaltion countries are. On that, they've been caught with a hand directly in the cookie jar.

But on the issue of various audio and video being removed from the site, also as reported here, there is ample evidence that Gilliam is giving far too much credence to the White House spin of removing old media after a certain date.

While such a policy, questionable in and of itself, might have explained why some of the media is no longer available, there is far more evidence suggesting that there is no blanket policy for the removal of audio and video media from the site. Rather, if there is such a policy, it is either a haphazard operation or, more likely, done as the political operatives see fit.

How otherwise to explain the January 21, 2002 video from a Martin Luther King Day event which is still available from the White House website? We're well beyond the suggested one-year expiry date for such material. And, of course, that's just one of many videos well over a year old which are still available for viewing at the White House website.

And take a look at a sampling of Bush's Radio Addresses from all the way back in 2001, just before and after 9/11. Some audio is still there, some isn't:

Aug 4, 2001: "President Announces Medicaid Reform in Weekly Radio Address" (REMOVED)

Aug 11, 2001: "Radio Address by the President to the Nation" (Stem Cell Research) (REMOVED)

Aug 18, 2001: "Radio Address of the President to the Nation" (Values, Faith-Based Initiative, Compassion) (STILL THERE)

Aug 25, 2001: "President Discusses Budget in Radio Address" (REMOVED)

Sep 1, 2001: "President Urges Quick Passage of Education Plan in Radio Address" (REMOVED)

Sep 8, 2001: "President Emphasizes Education Reform in Radio Address" (REMOVED)

Sep 15, 2001: "Radio Address of the President to the Nation" (9/11, National Security) (STILL THERE)

Sep 22, 2001: "Radio Address: Despite Challenges, Economy Fundamentally Strong" (REMOVED)

Could that simply be the result of sloppy webmastering? I suppose so. Though it's certainly of note that only audio from the "National Security" and "Compassionate Conservatism" addresses remains online, while economic, education and stem cell-related addresses are no longer available.

Even so, why should a White House as politically structured from the ground up as this one has proven to be - which has now been caught specifically removing politically damaging material and lying about virtually every aspect of their four years in power as part of a clearly orchestrated campaign strategy - be given the benefit of the doubt on anything anymore?

That notion alone underscores why these guys need to go; if they can't even be trusted in their own country by their own citizens, how are they to be able to represent our best interests and be trusted by any of the nations in the world?

The unavoidable perception is that of arrogant attempts at deception, displayed by a willful manipulation of the publicly-funded and historically-relevant records of the White House website. The arrogance here is revealed by the fact that it's so simple to demonstrate what these guys are doing, and yet they both continue to do it - and lie about it.

We're able to follow some of the shenanigans thanks in part to Internet cache and search sites such as Google's Cache and The Wayback Machine. But those sites do not cache old media (audio and video) files, only old documents - and the White House has even attempted to block caching of those, as reported over a year ago by 2600.com and others.

That policy is still in effect today via a robots.txt file on the site which provides a long list for Internet search and archive engines describing precisely which directories should not be indexed.

And yet, even with all the evidence to the contrary, this White House baldly announces to the American people that this entire process is nothing more essentially than routine maintenance. Right. And George W. Bush never said he was "truly not that concerned" about Osama bin Laden. It's just one of those... exaggerations in a world where words, they continue to hope in these last few days of the campaign, will speak louder than actions.

With the exception of a single AFP report filed on this on-going matter, and despite the story becoming amongst the most discussed in the entire blogosphere over the past week, we still continue to scratch our head and wonder how the mainstream media can file report after report about lesbians, wolfpacks, and goose-hunting while possible violations of federal laws by a sitting administration go virtually unreported.

That is a courtesy granted, apparently, only to this administration. I'm sure Al Gore would have appreciated the same back in 2000 when literally hundreds, if not thousands, of reports were filed on a couple of campaign-related phone calls alleged to have been made from a White House telephone and "no controlling legal authority" became the buzz phrase of both the right-wing and the so-called "liberal" media from then on through Election Day.

As ever, a different set of media rules seem to apply to Democratic versus Republican administrations. Never fear. I'm sure the media will suddenly begin to "get it right" again during the Kerry administration.

Brad Friedman is a freelance writer and software designer. He is also a proud "Liberal Hollywood Elitist" sharing all of the great esteem and many rewards that come with it. His blog can be read at http://www.BradFriedman.com/BradBlog.

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