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History Reloaded: Changing The Past To Suit The Present

The authors of a new report argue that revisions to the White House Web site reflect a willingness by the Bush administration to whitewash history.

Once upon a time, it may have been that history was written by the winners. But in the information age, history is written by the persistent. Digital information is subject to constant revision, unless care is taken to document its state over time.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at Wikipedia, where government agencies, public companies, private organizations, and concerned individuals continually revise the online encyclopedia's entries to suit their respective agendas.

Such changes have also been found at the White House Web site, where the history of the Iraq war, as described in official press releases, has been revised without public notification.

Two of five White House press releases detailing the number and names of countries that publicly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the "Coalition of the Willing," are no longer accessible and three of them were altered without notice, according to "Airbrushing History, American Style," a report issued Wednesday by Kalev H. Leetaru, coordinator of information technology and research at the University of Illinois Cline Center for Democracy, and Scott L. Althaus, associate professor in the departments of political science and communication at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

"Modifications to the historical record by the Bush White House began in the opening days of the Iraq invasion and continued through at least the end of 2005," the report states. "Many of these changes involve adding or deleting countries from the coalition list and then presenting the latest change as if it were the original list."

The changes made to these documents -- adding Angola and Ukraine as coalition members, for example -- may seem inconsequential, but Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, says the public record should be treated better.

"It shows disrespect for the public record," he said in an e-mail. "Newspapers and even individual bloggers usually indicate when an original text has been modified, corrected, or updated. One has a right to expect no less from the White House."

Leetaru and Althaus argue that the changes reflect a broader willingness by the Bush administration to whitewash history, and point to other discreet changes made to electronic documents over the years, like the removal of the transcript of an interview with Andrew S. Natsios, head of the United States Agency for International Development, from the agency's Web site in 2003.

"If so much energy was focused on reshaping the names and number of coalition countries, one can only imagine what might have been done to higher-profile or more sensitive content on the White House Web site," the report says.

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