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.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

November 26, 2008

4 Min Read

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.

Yet the very technology that makes digital information so mutable also makes it possible to track changes. "The good news is that such modifications are increasingly difficult to conceal, as the study authors discovered, since copies of the originals are independently archived off-site," said Aftergood.

Leetaru and Althaus discovered the changed press releases by comparing them to copies at the Internet Archive, an organization that takes snapshots of the Web for posterity.

Brewster Kahle, director and co-founder of the Internet Archive, describes the site as a library for the digital age, a place where information is kept. That may seem unnecessary, but according to Kahle, "the average life of a Web page is 100 days."

Kahle finds the report by Leetraru and Althaus to be troubling. "If people are allowed to change past to suit the present, we're living in an Orwellian world," he said.

Yet even he acknowledges that some flux in the historical record is necessary. "We've never had pressure to change things [in our archive], but do respond to people wanting to take things out of the Wayback Machine," he said, noting that not everything published online is intended to be preserved.

Kahle concurs that technology has made it harder to revise history, but only in certain circumstances. "For spectacular things, it's hard to take things off the Net," he said. "But in general, things are going away much more rapidly than they did in the past. All in all, we’re seeing information disappear as the ground changes."

There's an opportunity here, Leetaru suggests, for a company to apply the third-party certification authority model, practiced by VeriSign as the certifier of SSL certificates, to public document integrity.

"Government agencies like the White House and even companies that have documents they want to show have been unaltered (such as electronic legal contracts) would pay to have this service create MD5 fingerprints of their documents and store them," said Leetaru in an e-mail. "The company would offer a browser toolbar with an 'authenticated browsing mode' where the browser automatically computes in the background an MD5 hash for each page the user visits and compares it against the MD5 hash stored on the company's site to verify that the page has remained unchanged, much in the way Google's toolbar offers a phishing alert to warn of potentially unsafe Web pages."

"By making the verification process more transparent and automatic, verifying whether documents are original or not will become just a normal part of the Web browsing experience, rather than a labor-intensive effort in digital forensics," he said.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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