When the Commander in Chief has to pull the plug


Think about your daily routine for a second.  Chances are it involves the obligatory email check with the morning coffee, either handheld or laptop.  A ride on the subway or train might be your chance to catch up with last night’s tweets, facebook messages, or answering some of those incoming emails.  First thing in the office requires a wake up (or boot) of your daily tool of productivity: that silicon chip based metal or plastic box containing most of tools you need to get the job done, aka your computer.  Your day will most likely progress in the same manner, and when the network goes down, the first response is to flip the switch on the 3G-network function, and merrily carry on your way.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Now imagine every single one of those tools is ripped out of your hands, all in the name of National Security.  That’s exactly what may or may not be happening to President Obama when he takes the reins full time today.

The story comes from Jeff Zeleny’s coverage of Obama having to part with his dearly beloved Blackberry in last November’s NY Times.  Some quotes from the article that REALLY raised a couple eyebrows included:

For all the pre-requisites and power afforded the President, the chief executive of the United States is essentially deprived by law and by culture of some of the very tools that other chief executives depend on to survive and to thrive.

Aides said he [Obama] hopes to have a laptop computer on his desk in the Oval Office, making him the first American President to do so.

A decision has not been made on whether he [Obama] could become the first e-mailing President, but aides said that seemed doubtful.

There are a number of ways these arguments are flawed, and I’m quite convinced that Mr. Zeleny did an excellent job in the journalism department, I’m not so sure about the National Security Administration.  Let’s take a look at a statement Mr. Bush made just before taking office in 2000:

“Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you.”

Here, President Bush is indirectly referring to the Presidential Records Act.  Basically, this act states that any and all communications the President (directly) makes should be recorded and available for public viewing.  Fair enough.  But.  There are a few convenient exceptions to the rule in so much as the President has an executive right to delay this information by up to 12 years.  By default, the information is withheld from the public for 5 years.

What we’re seeing here is a literal hand-tying of one of the most important men in the world.  What would happen if every CEO of every Fortune 500 Company were suddenly told that they could no longer use the Internet, email, or mobile device?  Pure outrage, and perhaps a collapse of business as we know it.  So why then cut the man with his finger on the red phone out of the loop?

I honestly don’t think that Obama is the type of guy who’s going to be emailing classified documents from the East Wing to his buddies in Chicago at 3 a.m. anytime soon.  And even if he does, Google’s beer goggle feature might be able to prevent him from doing so.

Ok, so we’re covered on any embarrassing public record conversations coming to the light of day (5+ years after the fact), which inevitably leads us to the security concerns.  There’s no doubt that the President of the United States is a high-risk target to hackers of every variety under the sun.  The presidential computer (AirMacOne?) would be a target for just about every intelligence agency in the world.

But before I shoot myself in the foot with this argument, let me remind you that the CIA, FBI, and each branch of the military regularly use email.  And what’s more, the FBI even has a tendency to lose these computers, and as of 2007, have implemented none of the recommendations made in the 2002 internal audit.  But yet, the man in charge can’t have his own email address and laptop?

The United States Government employs a LOT of smart people.  These smart people know a lot of things about secure environments, both physical and virtual.  All emails to the presidential email address (which in all actuality never reaches the president) and any incoming and outgoing network communications are monitored extremely closely.  Why would it be difficult to create a special presidential task force for the existing system?

And the penultimate statement from the NY Times article:

“The nature of the President’s job is that others can use e-mail for him.”

Whatchutalkin’aboutWillis?  Here’s just another example of an overly sensitive response from an overly critical ‘security community’ with the be all/end all answer of “Don’t use a computer”.  The way I see it, an email is an email, no matter who sends it.  I guess technically, the President would be cleared of all guilt and association if he did not physically send the email, but still, are we really cultivating a system of @$$ covering?  This hearkens back to the days of secretaries where Peggy Olsen was responsible for getting Don Drapers coffee, answering his phone, and typing his correspondence.  The Oval Office is rapidly growing out of the touch with the country it’s designed to serve.

So in essence what we’ve got is THE CEO of all CEO’s that’s going to be forced to work with 19th century tools in a 21st century age.  Imagine your only source of information came second hand from advisers.  Would you still be doing as good a job as you’re doing now with the world readily available at your fingertips?  How would you be able to see the big picture in an unbiased way?

If the President of the United States of America is truly a figure that many turn their eyes and ears to in times of need or otherwise, why then are we strapping the blindfold on, and sticking the earplugs in?

Photo and Quotes from the NY Times

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  1. Devin says:

    If you can answer these questions for me, I might be on board.

    What is the benefit to the country for Barrack to use a computer/email?

    What specifically do you think we would have to gain from him having email?

    As an IT guy, it seems that this is a case of the risk being much too high for the reward.

    Creating a task force dedicated to securing the President’s electronic transmissions seems a like a bit much as well.


  2. Jared says:

    I LOVE the idea of the Presiden’t laptop being called ‘AirMacOne’ – though of course I’d prefer that it run Linux, and I can’t think of any clever monikers to go along with that.

    I think the biggest travesty is that President Obama doesn’t get the satisfaction of rattling off his email address when exchanging contact information.

    – ‘So, what’s your Email address?’
    – ‘Oh, it’s ThePresident@us.gov … capital T, capital P, that’s right’

    To your point, Devin – I agree, I wouldn’t want to be the IT guy who received the 3am call that the President had downloaded a virus via Email.


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