White House Web Site Transparency

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According to a study by Scott Althaus and Kalev Leetaru of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the Bush White House has routinely changed pages and statements on the White House web site with no disclaimer stating that the information has been altered. The key findings from the report’s web site are below:

  • There are at least five documents taking the form of White House press releases that detail the number and names of countries in the “Coalition of the Willing” that publicly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At one time, all five of these documents were archived on the White House web site.
  • Today, only three of these five documents can still be accessed in the White House archives. One of the missing lists was removed from the White House web site at some point in late 2004, and the other was removed between late 2005 and early 2006. These two “missing” lists represent earlier and smaller lists of coalition members.
  • The text of three of these five documents was altered at some point after their initial release, even though in most cases the documents still retained their original release dates and were presented as unaltered originals. These alterations to the public record changed the apparent number of countries making up the coalition, as well as the names of countries in the coalition. Some of these alterations appear to have been made as long as two years after the document’s purported release date.
  • Of the five documents, only two appear to have remained unaltered after the date of their initial release. These are the only two of the five that could be authentic originals. However, we find no evidence that either of these press releases was distributed broadly to the media through normal electronic channels.
  • Two versions of the coalition list dated March 27, 2003 can be currently accessed on the White House web site. Both claim that there were 49 countries in the coalition, but one lists only 48 by name, omitting Costa Rica. The revision history of this document shows that Costa Rica’s name was removed retroactively at some point in late 2004, after the Costa Rican Supreme Court ruled that continued use of its name on the list was a violation of Costa Rica’s constitution.
  • Taken together, these findings suggest a pattern of revision and removal from the public record that spans several years, from 2003 through at least 2005. Instead of issuing a series of revised lists with new dates, or maintaining an updated master list while preserving copies of the old ones, the White House removed original documents, altered them, and replaced them with backdated modifications that only appear to be originals.

The two researchers sum up their work by stating that, “the removals and revisions of White House documents distort the historical record of what our government has said and done.” This effort to alter perceptions through manipulating statements online after they have already been in the public domain is completely unacceptable and violates the norms of behavior online. The altering of information in a non-transparent fashion violates all notions of online communications, where transparency is essential to trust.

This controversy immediately brings to mind the Tim O’Reilly article on web site revision control for the Obama-Biden Transition site change.gov:

There’s a profound and simple tool that the Obama administration can use to improve government transparency. It’s something that’s enabled worldwide collaboration among software developers, and whose relevance for content development has been definitively demonstrated by wikipedia: Revision control. Not only does revision control allow a community to work independently on a common project, it makes it possible to review the changes.

Changing information online can no longer be done in a non-transparent manner. With so many of us able to follow the history on a Wikipedia page or used to the accountability of errors in blog posts, edits and deletions need to be noted.

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