After Tuesday's post on the Presidential Records Act, I had the opportunity to speak with Joe Hagin, who served as a Deputy White House Chief of Staff for former President George W. Bush from 2001 until July of last year. He confirmed what I had suspected -- there really are only two hard-and-fast rules on the books that govern how the President of the United States can communicate and what devices he can use.
One is the Presidential Records Act, which requires all official communications to be captured for the National Archives. The second is the requirement that information classified under the government system as confidential, secret, top secret or sensitive compartmentalized information.can only be discussed or transmitted via devices that are approved for such information. With those two exceptions, the President has complete discretion, and each administration makes its own decisions about how the White House staff will communicate.
The debate over President Obama's BlackBerry, Hagin says, centers on information that's "senstive but not classified." Anything the President of the United States says or transmits is sensitive by virtue of the position he holds. Since the Secret Service is responsible for protecting him physically and from electronic invasion, they are concerned about the ease with which smartphones can be hacked into. White House lawyers and other staff have an issue because they must make sure things are captured for the archives. But all of them have another concern that's more political. Hagin explains:
Imagine if a friend of his or a relative of his sent him something that was controversial and that somehow got into the public domain. You can imagine, given the game of "gotcha" that's played in Washington, the questions that would come. Did the President repudiate his friend? Did the President cut off contact with his friend? Does the president agree with his friend? ...All of a sudden you have the President having to defend information that he had no control over receiving... that becomes a permanent part of the presidential record.
Though Hagin cannot speak to what the current White House rules on smartphone use are, he did offer a glimpse into what was in place during former President Bush's time there. When the President and his staff were going to an area that security and intelligence agencies believed to be risky, smartphones had to be left on the plane in a disabled mode or at home. He says:
And that's not really a good answer because you lose all the productivity of having the thing. In fact, when we first got to the White House in 2001, there were no BlackBerries. The security agencies had decided they were too vulnerable... Sept. 11 changed everything because we were struggling terribly to communicate on Sept. 11...So not long after, the White House purchased I think 50 [devices], and then went to 200, and today, almost everyone who works there has one.