TWO and a half months into his job in 2001, President Bush addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors and faced a question about open government. It’s worth recalling the exchange:
Questioner: “Would you take this moment to articulate your own view of First Amendment freedoms and give us a sense of the fundamental message that you will send to your administration as it makes decisions on whether to open or close access to government information?”
Bush: “There needs to be balance when it comes to freedom of information laws. There are some things that when I discuss in the privacy of the Oval Office or national security matters that just should not be in the national arena.
“On the other hand, my administration will cooperate fully with a Freedom of Information request if it doesn’t jeopardize national security, for example. The interesting problem I have, or for me, as the president, is what’s personal and what’s not personal. And, you know, frankly, I haven’t been on the job long enough to have had to make those choices. … I used to be an avid e-mailer, and I e-mailed to my daughters or e-mailed to my father, for example, and I don’t want those e-mails to be in the public domain. …
But we’ll cooperate with the press, unless we think it’s a matter of national security or something that’s entirely private.”
Today, you’re no longer a rookie, Mr. President. You should be clear by now about what is a public e-mail and what is a family e-mail.
It is a matter of public concern that at least 5 million White House e-mails are missing. A watchdog group has sued for the White House Office of Administration to turn over information about the e-mails, some related to the firing of U.S. attorneys.
Last week, the Justice Department argued that the office is not subject to the open-records law. The office’s Web site, however, tells anyone how to use the law to request documents.
Bush has failed in his commitment to open government by losing sight of what is the public’s business. It is not – and has never been – a fatherly e-mail to his daughters.