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5/4/2011
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Congress Probes White House Social Media, Smartphone Use

Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, grilled Obama administration officials about the effect of digital communications on presidential recordkeeping.

Obama's Tech Tools
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Slideshow: Obama's Tech Tools
The increased use of commercial smartphones and social media in the White House is raising concerns among lawmakers about the integrity of presidential records.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on Tuesday grilled the White House's top technology manager and the leading U.S. archivist about what policies govern recordkeeping for personal messaging from the White House sent via devices like iPhones using public online services such as Gmail and Facebook.

Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committee held a hearing this week at which Brook Colangelo, the CIO for the White House Office of Administration, and David Ferriero, the U.S. archivist for the National Archives and Records Administration, appeared as witnesses. Video of the hearing is available on YouTube.

The law at the center of the debate is the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which--like many laws drafted before the advent of the Internet--doesn't necessarily take into consideration the various forms of digital communication available now.

The White House has promoted its increased use of social media, particularly under the Obama administration. Just this week, in a White House blog post, the administration reminded the public that the WhiteHouse.gov website is not the only place people can find information about and communicate with the administration.

The White House, for example, has more than one Facebook page. There is the official page for the Oval Office, one for First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative to promote healthy kids, and a page for the administration's Educate to Innovate campaign, among others.

White House staffers also have multiple Twitter accounts, including ones for press secretary Jay Carney (@PressSec), communications director Dan Pfeiffer (@Pfeiffer), White House photographer Pete Souza (@PeteSouza), and Spanish language content (@LaCasaBlanca).

There is a general policy for keeping records of communications between the White House and the public via these forms of social media. The White House preserves tweets from official accounts, as well as direct messages sent to and replies from those accounts. It also requires that staffers who receive emails on unofficial or personal email and Web accounts about official business must voluntarily preserve those emails as presidential records.

Issa expressed more concern during the hearing about what happens when staffers use personal email or social-media accounts while at work, or when people use those accounts to send messages from personal electronic devices like iPhones.

"Today there are hundreds of products in the ... executive office, the Treasury building, and the White House proper being used to communicate, whether you like it or not, to private emails or simply connected, is that correct?" Issa asked Colangelo, who replied, "That's correct, sir."

Colangelo acknowledged that while there is training in place for how White House staffers should keep track of use their Web-based email, there is no real control over what devices people bring into the White House, nor how they use those devices for communications. However, the White House does archive emails sent from White House computers, which also block access to personal email accounts such as Gmail and Hotmail, he said.

Issa stressed that his concern and interest in making changes to policy aren't personally directed at President Obama himself, but at the new ways of digitally communicating that aren't covered by current law governing presidential records.

"I'm not after the president," he said. "I'm not after the administration. I'm after the changes in technology and whether or not we're equipped to deal with them."

Obama is a known proponent of commercial mobile devices like his own BlackBerry and the first president to fully embrace Web-based communications, such as social networking, to engage with the public.

At least one lawmaker on the committee expressed derision at the thought of putting any kind of ban on the kind of personal devices White House staffers are allowed to use at work. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said that restricting the ability of people to use devices to communicate from inside the White House would be a bad idea and create a "Big Brother" mentality.

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