Federal government email from the inside

Posted Sunday, Jul. 06, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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greene Since senior federal official Lois Lerner and I served together in the Bush Administration, surely she must have received the same sort of regular briefings about using the government’s email system as I did.

She worked over at the IRS and I was at the EPA. I suppose there was the possibility that the two agencies were governed by different policies — but I seriously doubt it.

I doubt it even though her boss has told congressional investigators that there was some kind of time limit on keeping emails in the system and that the IRS lacked sufficient funds to operate a computer back-up system that would preserve them indefinitely.

The EPA’s annual budget is somewhere around $8 billion. The IRS has more than $11 billion to spend every year.

In any event, here’s how I was briefed during the two terms of the Bush presidency in which I was honored to serve.

At least once a year, I was required to participate in a formal training session in the agency’s regional office dealing with issues of national security, the Freedom of Information Act, record retention and other directives about the use of the government’s computer systems.

Some years there were additional briefings at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., with representatives of the Justice Department and Homeland Security present. On more than one occasion, White House officials provided instructions, including the president’s chief of staff.

I was told that anything I did with my computer or Blackberry device would result in a permanent record being created. Only classified communications would be encrypted, and all the rest would be discoverable in any legal proceedings.

That record would be available to virtually anyone but especially useful to Congress or the Justice Department in the event of their need to examine electronic communications dealing with public affairs.

I was specifically advised (warned) that emails were valuable means to determine what I had discussed with anyone. That included even my personal emails on my personal computer at home, if the subject matter had any connection whatsoever with my work as an employee of the United States.

A candid summary cautioned that I should apply two questions before I hit the send button: First, would I have any concerns if my email showed up in the Washington Post, or would anything I wrote in any way embarrass the president?

Upon the end of my term of service, I was required to sign an affirmative statement that I had not removed nor caused to be removed any government record from the office.

Any notion that I could just erase something after it had been sent was conclusively dashed when the hard drive inside my desktop computer in my office crashed.

The tech guy came in, quickly removed the drive and told me he would try to fix it. I explained to him that my concern was that all my data, including email that I often searched through, was on that drive and could be lost.

His reply was to assure me that every stroke of my keyboard had been backed up multiple times in the local office and off site as well, and nothing would be lost.

If he couldn’t fix the drive he had removed, he would simply set up a new one and transfer everything that was there from the moment it failed and it would be completely restored.

Maybe my experience is why the latest polls are finding about 75 percent of the American people believe Congress should keep investigating what happened to Lerner’s emails.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. mayorgreene@mayorgreene.com

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