House panel probes White House staff's storing of mobile device messages

Panel examines whether to update Presidential Records Act for new technologies

A House panel on May 3 probed as to whether or not White House staff members can be depended on to vigilantly collect and turn over any non-personal official records that might exist on their private iPhones, iPads and other mobile devices, or if a third-party review of those personal devices is needed to ensure all appropriate records are being captured.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee explored that issue in a hearing on White House compliance with the Presidential Records Act. Some panel members asked if the law needs to be updated to reflect new technologies and social media tools.

Currently, the White House computer system automatically archives all system e-mail messages and records, even personal e-mail messages such as those to spouses about working late at the office, said Brook Colangelo, CIO for the White House’s Office of Administration.

The e-mail archiving system is robust and “fully operational,” Colangelo said. The system also captures messages on office-issued mobile devices.


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Under official policies, White House staffers are instructed to conduct all official business on their office computers and office-issued devices, except in emergencies. They also are not allowed to connect personal devices to the office network.

Even so, the White House staffers exercise discretion in how they apply presidential records preservation policies to Web e-mail messages and social media postings conducted on their personal smart phones and mobile devices, Colangelo added.

The staff members receive training and direction about proper procedures for saving any official records that might be stored on their personal devices, he said. But he also acknowledged the staffers must exercise their own judgment in identifying those official records, if any exist, on their personal devices, and in copying those records for storage in an official account.

And that discretion raised alarms for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the panel's chairman, who said the staffers could easily circumvent the rules if they chose to do so.

“Should there be a third-party review to ensure compliance?” Issa asked Colangelo. He suggested that an independent body could review the Web e-mails, social media messages, text messages and other communications of a selected group of White House “covered persons” to determine if any of the communications met the criteria for official records.

Issa said he was concerned that White House Web e-mail messages, Facebook and Twitter postings, and other information from personal devices of White House staffers may be falling through the cracks under the presidential records law, which does not specifically address those technologies.

David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, also questioned whether full compliance with the records law is possible without full automation. “My concern is the human element,” he said.

Colangelo said a third-party review might not be feasible. “I am not sure how I would collect the data from private accounts,” he said.

Last year, Issa called attention to actions by Andrew McLaughlin, the former White House deputy CTO, who was reprimanded for using personal e-mail messages to discuss policy with former colleagues at Google. The White House said the mistake was inadvertent and had no effect on official policy. Issa called for additional sanctions. McLaughlin left the position in December 2010.

Issa maintained in the session that White House policies for the use of unofficial accounts on personal devices are vague.

Also at the hearing, Colangelo said that 98 percent of White House staffers are blocked from accessing Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites from their office computers. The only staff members with work access to those sites are those who work on the social media team handling official communications on those sites, he said. All the official records in the Facebook and Twitter postings are captured and archived, he added.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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