The lawyers broke the bad news to Obama aides at a briefing Friday morning convened by incoming Deputy White House Counsel Cassandra Butts: Not only are they leaving the modern world to enter a White House where some of the clunky desktop computers still run Windows 2000 but—worst of all—they'll be forced to surrender form of communication staffers have relied on for the last two years to communicate with each other, outside allies, and the press.
From Axelrod, the chief campaign strategist, down to junior staffers in the press office, Obama's campaign relied heavily on software many of them began using in high school—AOL Instant Message and Google Chat. Instant messaging, though little mentioned, is—perhaps as much as email—deeply woven into contemporary politics and media, whose fabric is the constant, quick, gossipy transmission of spin and information. But a calculus that's perhaps one part security, one part law, and two parts politics, has long barred instant messaging from the White House.
"They just told us flat out we couldn't IM in the White House," groused one senior staffer Friday.
"It sucks. It's really going to slow us down," complained another, saying that lawyers had warned that, along with Instant Messaging, White House software will restrict users to a range of sites roughly "like your average grade school."
The clunky technology is standard issue for government offices, but the bar on instant messaging is fairly unique to the White House. Legal and security experts say it is dictated by the fear of embarrassment if IMs were to be disclosed. The Presidential Records Act requires White House documents to become public five years after a president leaves office, and most lawyers think it would apply to any instant messages discussing government business.
"People have to be conscious that when you put something on paper you think it through," said former Clinton White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum. With IM, he said, "you think you're talking but you're really writing."
The Bush Administration has been rebuked by federal courts for the apparent destruction of emails sent by political aides on non-governmental accounts, and Obama's aides are intensely aware that any instant messages written must be preserved, and will become part of the permanent record, which may not be desirable.
"They're going to realize, once you go inside the bubble, it becomes much more difficult to maintain contact with the outside world," said Reginald Brown, a former associate White House counsel for President Bush. "IMng encourages a kind of casualness in conversation that will be the bane of the lawyers down the line. The reality is that if you want to engage in the equivalent of IMing, you have to pick up the phone."
Brown noted that, along with entering the permanent record after the presidency, the IMs could become public sooner in response to Congressional subpoenas or lawsuits.
"These lawyers - [incoming White House Counsel] Greg Craig in particular—come out of a law firm environment and knows how onerous e-discovery has been for clients," he said.
Instant messaging—like email—also brings security concerns, though Beryl Howell, an lawyer who specializes in cyber-security, said it would be "feasible" to encrypt IM and block potential avenues for viruses.
Others called the policy a reasonable, and perhaps even helpful, way to avoid public embarrassment—and even to inspire more sober thinking.
Hillary Clinton's former chief strategist, Howard Wolfson - who exchanged pleasantries with Axelrod on IM even in the heat of the primaries - emailed that the ban is "probably a blessing. Less distractions."
The instant message ban is just part of a maze Obama's lawyers are preparing to enter, as the 1978 record act faces up to contemporary technology. Lawyers believe, for instance, that any government-related content Obama's aides put on social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter will be covered by the act and must be preserved.
And the difficulty of Obama having email isn't just that he will have to be careful about what he writes; any message, however embarrassing, that
is written to him must be preserved.
Many veterans of the Bush White House—who have been accused of channeling compromising political conversations to outside email accounts, which they deny—say they've found it intensely frustrating.
"Did you all think the White House just didn't know that Facebook at Twitter existed?" asked Almacy, blaming the lawyers for the archaic feel of White House web operations.
A current Bush aide said the law didn't contemplate the shift of hallway conversations to instant message and email.
"Do you really want every one of those hallway conversations preserved for the official record?"
But the controversy over the Bush emails, and Obama's promise of transparency, make it unlikely that the new president and Congress will pass legislation lowering the veil of secrecy over new technologies. So for now, Obamas aides will have to cope with telephones and email alone, a shift that will afflict Axelrod—whose habit of using punctuation and complete sentences in his IMs amuses young staffers—as much as any.
Asked by email about the impending technological downgrade, he emailed: "I will reply to this by registered mail."
"I don't' think it was necessarily a national security issue—I think it had mostly to do with the records act," said David Almacy, the former Bush White House Internet Director, who noted that to keep IM, a White House would probably have to "work with an external contractor to preserve all that communication in real time."
Obama's lawyers told staff Friday they'd be reviewing current White House information security policy, and the IM ban drew mixed reviews from outside experts, with some saying that could cast the staff into some of the same isolation that Obama, by insisting on keeping his Blackberry, is seeking to avoid.
"Does there really need to be a trade off here? The net effect is that the president and all of his top staff are going to be put into a bubble," said Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archvie. "There should be ways for the President's staff to take advantage of the latest IM technology—otherwise they're living in the hothouse, and strange plants grow in hothouses."