The White House memory hole

Jesse Berney at Kicking Ass explains why the White House has prevented Google and other search engines from indexing the files on its public website that mention Iraq: if it’s not indexed, it’s not archived, making it harder to prove later that some inconvenient fact has disappeared down the Memory Hole.

I agree with Kevin Drum: I’m willing to stop using the term “Orwellian” to refer to this gang as soon as they’re prepared to stop using 1984 as an instruction manual.

[Naturally, Atrios was on this one first.]

Update Stephen Laniel of Politics and Policy points out that the trick with the robots.txt file isn’t very sophisticated and could be defeated either by reprogramming existing search engines or by setting up an independent archive of whitehouse.gov. The former (also suggested by Michael Froomkin and endorsed by Brad DeLong) is a good idea but seems unlikely to happen. The latter, also suggested by Froomkin, is an excellent idea, though as Laniel points out it would be hard to show, later, that the archive was accurate if the White House denied it.

Laniel goes on to ask why, if there’s embarrassing stuff on whitehouse.gov, the White House doesn’t delete it rather than just hiding it from search engines and archivists. That, it seems to me, misses the point.

It’s not that the White House has files up now that they know now are embarrassing; it’s that they have files up now that, thought they don’t know it now, will become embarrassing in the future, when Oceania is no longer at war with Eurasia and therefore has never been at war with Eurasia.

For example, when the White House announced that combat operations in Iraq had ended, that wasn’t something they knew then they’d later want to pretend they hadn’t said. When they changed their minds and tried to change their files, the Google archive allowed journalists to show that they were

monkeying with the record. That’s the sort of fact-checking this latest tactic was designed to frustrate.

Laniel speculates that there might have been an innocent motive for what was done, but gives no hint of what such a motive might have been. I’d characterize it more as a wish that were weren’t ruled by a bunch of clumsy scoundrels than an argument that this administration isn’t in fact a bunch of clumsy scoundrels.

I, too, wish we weren’t ruled by a bunch of clumsy scoundrels. But since wishing won’t make it so, I’m planning to do something about it between now and November 2004.

Update here

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “The White House memory hole”

  1. The White House and robots.txt

    People have been making something of a stink about the
    White House’s
    robots.txt file
    (my cache),
    which forbids search engines like Google
    from indexing certain files. Among the list of excluded files
    are a number of files with the word “Iraq&#

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