iPad presents problems for Presidential Records Act

The law mandates that all communications related to official business must be archived, and the administration’s policy is that White House staffers who use personal email or social-networking accounts to conduct official business must forward the messages for archiving to official accounts.

But there are few safeguards to ensure they do so. Panel witness David Ferriero, the archivist of the U.S., said he isn’t comfortable with White House staffers determining for themselves what is and isn’t relevant for presidential records.

“The question is: Are you comfortable? No, I’m not. Any time there’s human intervention, then I’m not comfortable,” Ferriero said.

According to Colangelo, White House email accounts are archived automatically under a system instituted at the start of the Obama administration. Most social networks and webmail services are blocked on official computers, though roughly 70 staffers have access to sites like Facebook in an official capacity.

Colangelo repeatedly referenced the training given to staffers by the administration, but said the technologies for automatically archiving Facebook messages are not yet mature or reliable, so the administration currently handles it on a case-by-case basis.

Twitter messages are retained mostly using feeds such as RSS or API. Additionally, the Library of Congress is archiving all congressional tweets, which should document when lawmakers retroactively delete earlier messages.

“Staff have also received guidance that the Presidential Records Act applies to work-related electronic communications over both official and personal accounts, which includes social networks,” Colangelo said.

But staffers’ personal smartphones and iPads are not affected by the network restrictions, meaning the administration is relying on them to disclose whenever they communicate about official business over personal accounts.

The resulting uncertainty over what gets disclosed has Issa and the House Oversight committee discussing a possible update of the PRA, though it is too early in the process to say definitively whether such changes would attract support from both parties.

Alleged violations of the PRA have been one of the favorite hammers used by both parties on the Oversight Committee in recent years to criticize a sitting administration from across the aisle.