White House E-Mail

President Reagan tried to shred them electronically...

President Bush tried to take them to Texas...

President Clinton tried to put them beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act...


A National Security Archive documents reader

White House E-Mail

The Top-Secret Computer Messages the Reagan/Bush White House Tried to Destroy
Edited by Tom Blanton
1-56584-276-6; Paperback, Disk in ASCII; 256 pages; $14.95
Current Events/Government/History
November 22, 1995


White House e-mail survived, thanks to a six-year lawsuit brought by the National Security Archive and allied historians, librarians, and public interest lawyers.

 The most revealing of the e-mail released to date appears in this book and disk set, edited and richly annotated by the Archive's director.

 Here are the highest-level White House communications on the most secret national security affairs of the United States during the 1980s--shockingly candid electronic exchanges you were never meant to see, virtually none of which has ever before been available to the American public.

"As profound as major foreign policy initiatives and fiascos..as trivial as pizza orders and office flirtations."
--New York Times

"Forget the Nixon tapes. we've graduated to e-mail eavesdropping." --Publishers Weekly

"The battle for the first outpost of cyberspace--electronic mail--is over. We won; the White House lost."

"It's of vital importance for historians that such materials be retained." --Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.

"A rich historical record--and a source of occasional high comedy." --New York

"The book and diskette, culled from 4,000 sanitized messages that the White House and Iran-contra investigators have released, are a cross between history and voyeurism -- a stream of insights into past American policy, spiced with depictions of White House officials in poses they would never adopt for a formal portrait."
--Michael Wines, The New York Times, 11-26-95.

"Astonishing insights into the everyday workings of Reagan's senior staff." --Sue Ellicott, BBC, 10-14-95.

"In the explosive White House E-Mail, Tom Blanton airs dirty laundry that the Reagan-Bush Administration thought was safely buried in history's ragbag. The accompanying disk allows you to savor Ollie's follies in ASCII."
--Mark Dery, Newsweek, 12-11-95.

"Never intended for public viewing, these explosive missives reveal the raw back-room energy that fueled the carefully polished public personas of the Great Communicator's inner circle. If these unsettling wheelings, dealings, and power plays hadn't really happened, White House E-Mail would be the techno thriller of the year."
--Mary Elizabeth Williams, Wired, 11-95.

"The outcome of the archive's legal campaign is a riveting book edited by its director, Tom Blanton... and even inculdes a floppy disk which enables you to read the messages on screen, for all the world as if you were plugged into the National Security Council. Which, having seen what they get up to, you will be mighty glad that you are not."
--John Naughton, The Observer (London), 12-3-95.

Tom Blanton is executive director of the National Security Archive, an innovative non-governmental research institute and library located at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Ernie Cox, Jr.


- The National Security Council (NSC) staff at the White House acquires a prototype electronic mail system, from IBM, called the Professional Office System (PROFs).

April 1985
- The PROFs e-mail system becomes fully operational within the NSC, including not only the full staff, but also home terminals for the National Security Adviser, Robert "Bud" McFarlane, and his deputy, Admiral John M. Poindexter.

November 1986
- The remainder of the White House comes on line with electronic mail, at first with the PROFs system, and later (by the end of the 1980s) through a variety of systems including VAX A-1 ("All in One"), and ccmail.

November 22-25, 1986
- John Poindexter and Oliver North electronically shred more than 5000 e-mail notes in the memory banks of their computer systems, as the Iran-contra scandal breaks.

November 28, 1986
- Career staff at the White House Communications Agency order the November backup tapes of the e-mail system to be saved instead of recycled as usual. Subsequently, investigators from the FBI and the Tower Commission use the backup takes to reconstruct the Iran-contra scandal.

February 26, 1987
- The Tower Commission issues its report on Iran-contra, reprinting hundreds of PROFs notes exchanged by McFarlane, Poindexter and North.

January 19, 1989
- On the last day of the Reagan presidency, the National Security Archive files a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests together with a lawsuit against President Ronald Reagan, to prevent the imminent erasure of the White House electronic mail backup tapes. At 6:10 pm, on the eve of George Bush's inauguration, U.S. District Judge Barrington D. Parker issues a Temporary Restraining Order, prohibiting the destruction of the backup tapes to the PROFs system.

September 15, 1989
- U.S. District Judge Charles B. Richey rules that the National Security Archive and its co-plaintiffs, including the American Historical Association (AHA) and the American Library Association (ALA), have standing to sue President Bush, in order to force him to comply with the retention requirements of various records acts which potentially cover the White House e-mail.

January 25, 1991
- After a year-and-a-half of legal procedural wrangling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upholds Judge Richey's ruling on standing, denying the Bush administration's attempts to have the case dismissed.

November 20, 1992
- On request from the plaintiffs, Judge Richey adds the White House e-mail from the lame-duck Bush administration to the case, issuing a restraining order preventing the Bush White House from destroying its own backup computer records.

January 6, 1993
- Judge Richey rules that computer tapes containing copies of e-mail messages by Reagan and Bush White House staff must be preserved like other government records, because the electronic versions are not simply duplicates of paper printouts, but contain additional information beyond the paper copies.

January 11 and 14, 1993
- Judge Richey issues specific court orders requiring that the Bush White House preserve its computer records. In press interviews, Judge Richey says that despite his orders, he believes that the Bush administration is planning to destroy its e-mail files.

January 15, 1993
- In an expedited emergency ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upholds and modifies the rulings by Judge Richey, holding that government officials could erase White House and NSC computer files, as long as they preserved, on backup tapes, identical copies of what was being erased.

January 19, 1993
- President Bush signs a secret agreement with Don Wilson, head of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), purporting to grant Bush exclusive legal control over the e-mail tapes of his administration. Working through the night, a staff team from NARA takes custody of thousands of tapes and disk drives, hurriedly removing them from White House offices to prevent incoming Clinton appointees from gaining access to them.

February 16, 1993
- NARA career staff who managed the transfer describe in an internal memo how the so- called "midnight ride" had violated NARA's own rules for records transfers and how several sets of tapes ordered preserved by Judge Richey had been lost, erased or damaged.

May 22, 1993
- Judge Richey cites the Clinton White House and the acting Archivist of the United States for contempt of court for failing to carry out his order to issue new and appropriate guidelines for the preservation of the computer records of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton White House staff.

August 13, 1993
- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacates Judge Richey's contempt orders but upholds his overall decision that the Federal Records Act (FRA) requires that complete electronic copies of e-mail messages be preserved by the White House, and by extension, government agencies in general. The appeals court remands the case to Judge Richey to decide the issue of the dividing line between "agency" records covered by the FRA and presidential records covered by the Presidential Records Act.

March 25, 1994
- In a brief filed in federal court, the Clinton administration declares that the National Security Council is not an agency, and should be accorded the protection from public scrutiny given to the President's personal advisers. This argument attempts to remove the Clinton administration's White House e- mail from the reach of FOIA requests and the FRA, arguing that all its documents are subject only to the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and therefore not to court oversight.

December 13, 1994
- The e-mail plaintiffs file suit against the Acting Archivist of the United States to void the Bush-Wilson agreement, in American Historical Association et. al. v. Peterson.

February 15, 1995
- Judge Richey rejects the Clinton administration's arguments about the NSC's status as "arbitrary and capricious... contrary to history, past practice and the law," and declares that the National Security Council is an agency. The government subsequently appeals the decision, and the plaintiffs cross- appeal against a portion of Richey's ruling that opens a loophole for senior NSC staff giving advice to the President.

February 27, 1995
- In a separate opinion in the lawsuit over the Bush-Wilson agreement, Judge Richey declares the agreement "null and void," writing that "No one, not even a President, is above the law." The New York Times subsequently editorializes, under the headline "A Special Place in History for Mr. Bush," that "No President has the right to corner official records in an effort to control his place in history." (March 1, 1995, page A18)

September 8, 1995
- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit hears oral arguments in the case on the issue of Judge Richey's decision and the agency versus Presidential status of the NSC.

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