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Read, Listen, Inform: Government Publications in Action (August 2018): 9/11, Secrecy, and Web Scrubbing

By Aimée C. Quinn

9/11, Secrecy, and Web Scrubbing

The twenty-first century began with the G.W. Bush administration, which was very intent on controlling information. Secrecy was more prevalent than in most previous administrations. A tactic called “web-scrubbing,” or the cleansing of web pages by removing any information that does not agree with an administration’s policies and politics, became common and still has repercussions today. Since there was no official policy for archiving the previous administration’s web sites outside of the Executive Office of the President by National Archives, it was up to each agency to archive what it felt was important. Thus many agencies did not have the archival space to keep every report or document they produced. Most depository libraries also did not download every agency’s web site. However, the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine) and new projects such as the California Digital Archive began. Larger libraries started to create their own digital repositories, which included state and federal government web information.

In one of his earliest acts as president, Bush changed the long-standing Presidential Records Act through his executive order privilege. EO 13233 became infamous because it changed how presidential records were handled and extended presidential privilege to individuals who never had that privilege previously, such as the vice president, secretary of defense, and chief of staff. Patrice McDermott’s Who Needs to Know? The State of Public Access to Federal Government Information was written during this administration, and is an excellent overview of how government secrecy affects the dissemination of information. She also discusses the effects of the tragedy of 9/11 as the “dark side of digital government.”

After the terrorist attack, the E-Government Act 2002 was passed, which was supposed to promote e-government services and centralize them. This law established a new chief information officer in each agency, and a central unit within the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Overseeing each new agency CIO is a federal chief information officer (FCIO) who reports to the Director of the OMB. The FCIO coordinates e-government services across the Executive branch. This legislation did not address library concerns regarding preservation of electronic information, including emails, or privacy issues.

The Obama administration repealed EO 13233, but the damage was already done. It is unknown precisely how much information was lost between the Bush and Obama administrations. Many librarians tried to capture government websites during the transition once again, since the e-government legislation was still ineffective at preserving all e-government information, as CIOs debated the difference between “born digital” and “migrated digital” content, and whether both types required preservation. Discussion about this issue and many more can be found on library blogs, but the best one by far is freegovinfo (, operated by three government librarians: James A. Jacobs, James R. Jacobs, and Daniel Cornwall.

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