Published January 23, 2009
Is the White House in the technological dark ages? Hardly, say the people who just left it.
Former Bush administration staffers disputed the tone of a Washington Post story published Thursday that described a tech-savvy Obama team moving into a building equipped with creaky computers, out-of-date software, no e-mail service and dead phone lines.
Rather, the former staffers said, the White House has everything a modern corporate office would — Windows XP, BlackBerrys, Outlook e-mail, plenty of laptops and lots of flatscreen monitors and TVs.
"It's a shame if they're having problems moving in," said Theresa Payton, White House chief information officer from 2006 until this past November. "We began to prepare for the transition well ahead of the election cycle. Our aim was to leave it in better shape than we found it."
David Almacy, who ran the whitehouse.gov Web site and was the administration's Internet and e-communications director from 2005 to 2007, blames simple logistics and red tape for the Obama team's problems.
"Bureaucracy is nonpartisan," he said. "Moving 3,000 people out and 3,000 people in is a Herculean task."
Attempts to reach the Obama White House for this story were unsuccessful, possibly due to transition woes — phones didn't pick up, current e-mail addresses were unavailable and voicemail messages left on transition-team numbers went unanswered.
But if the descriptions by the Bush staffers are accurate, the new crew will have no trouble settling in once the dust settles, thanks to what appears to have been a tremendous technological overhaul during the Bush years.
In contrast, in January 2001, staffers started work using LotusNotes e-mail and pagers. Security-minded resistance was slowly overcome to allow upgrades to Outlook and BlackBerrys.
"When I got there in 2005, I was given a BlackBerry, a cell phone and a pager," Almacy said. "I gradually got it down to just a BlackBerry as the newer models incorporated phone functions, and I can tell you that White House staffers have their noses buried in their BlackBerrys at all times. They can't put them down for very long because something could happen."
The facilities have been given a makeover as well, so that at least a few things resemble what you'd see in a Tom Clancy movie adaptation.
"The Situation Room was completely redone and is very modern," with huge flatscreen TVs, said Almacy. "The press room is now state-of-the-art."
Spending on White House technology is nothing unusual, however, according to Payton.
"We follow standard government procurement procedures," she said. "First we see if it's in the budget, then we follow normal government procedures, bidding out for contracts."
So the Obama team, which according to the Washington Post got to use Macs during the campaign and the transition, had better get used to the Windows world. It's a PC White House -- and spending unnecessarily on new computers would not be politically correct.
"We have to be conscious of taxpayer dollars," said Almacy. "We don't want to overspend."
Staffers also have to be conscious of the fact that everything they e-mail is considered public property and subject to full disclosure under the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978.
The law mandates that all an administration's written communication be archived, and then opened up to full Freedom of Information Act access five years after the end of an administration.
"It was weird to come back into the private sector," said Almacy, "because I was still writing one-word e-mails — 'yup,' 'sounds good,' 'let's talk.' Finally I realized that I no longer had to worry about it all becoming matter of public record."
There are a few things that aren't available to White House staffers at all. Instant messaging is out, both for security reasons and because the Bush team wasn't able to find a way to archive all IMs, as required under PRA.
Certain Web sites, such as Facebook, are blocked to most White House Web accounts, also for security reasons. But it's almost certain the Obama e-communications team will be updating Facebook, as it already does with Twitter.
There's also no Wi-Fi, or any wireless Internet access at all. That'd be just too easy to hack into.
And while George H.W. Bush sent the first e-mail from the White House in 1992, and Bill Clinton went on the World Wide Web the following year, there has never been a computer on the desk in the Oval Office.
"There's one on a desk in the anteroom, just to the president's left," said Almacy. "If he needs to go online, he can do it from there."