Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages

Staff Finds White House in the Technological Dark Ages

By Anne E. Kornblut Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, January 22, 2009; A01

If the Obama campaign represented a sleek, new iPhone kind of future, the first day of the Obama administration looked more like the rotary-dial past.

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.

What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.

"It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said of his new digs.

In many ways, the move into the White House resembled a first day at school: Advisers wandered the halls, looking for their offices. Aides spent hours in orientation, learning such things as government ethics rules as well as how their paychecks will be delivered. And everyone filled out a seemingly endless pile of paperwork.

There were plenty of first-day glitches, too, as calls to many lines in the West Wing were met with a busy signal all morning and those to the main White House switchboard were greeted by a recording, redirecting callers to the presidential Web site. A number of reporters were also shut out of the White House because of lost security clearance lists.

By late evening, the vaunted new White House Web site did not offer any updated posts about President Obama's busy first day on the job, which included an inaugural prayer service, an open house with the public, and meetings with his economic and national security teams.

Nor did the site reflect the transparency Obama promised to deliver. "The President has not yet issued any executive orders," it stated hours after Obama issued executive orders to tighten ethics rules, enhance Freedom of Information Act rules and freeze the salaries of White House officials who earn more than $100,000.

The site was updated for the first time last night, when information on the executive orders was added. But there were still no pool reports or blog entries.

No one could quite explain the problem -- but they swore it would be fixed.

One member of the White House new-media team came to work on Tuesday, right after the swearing-in ceremony, only to discover that it was impossible to know which programs could be updated, or even which computers could be used for which purposes. The team members, accustomed to working on Macintoshes, found computers outfitted with six-year-old versions of Microsoft software. Laptops were scarce, assigned to only a few people in the West Wing. The team was left struggling to put closed captions on online videos.

Senior advisers chafed at the new arrangements, which severely limit mobility -- partly by tradition but also for security reasons and to ensure that all official work is preserved under the Presidential Records Act.


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Reply to
Monty Solomon
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On Jan 22, 7:49 pm, Monty Solomon quoted this:

Welcome to the real world. There is nothing wrong with 6-year old Windows XP. It can do everything the snazzy Mac can do and for a lot less money. And what's more, those computers can be fixed with off- the-shelf parts, unlike Macs.

***** Moderator's Note *****

Cnet is apparently assuming that its readers can't subtract: "six-year-old versions of Microsoft software" means MS Office 2003, the defacto standard for business use.

However, it doesn't matter if the new kids on the block at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. use Linapple or Wintel machines: what matters is that they realize that _getting_ someone elected is different than _governing_, and that they buckle down to producing more substance and less style.

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Reply to
David Kaye

... and waste copious amounts of time sifting through trivial crud. Does President Obama or his staff really need to know that "Janet Smith is going to work now" and "Joe Green is glad to be back home at last"?

I certainly hope Mr. Burton is more in touch with productivity than that quote suggests.

Reply to
Geoffrey Welsh

I think that's a bit of an exaggeration.

Another poster correctly described this as the difference between getting elected and governing. So true. A campaign does not have to answer to anyone. A president is subject to many laws and procedures to (1) protect his personal security, (2) protect national security, and (3) keep an eye on him (some of this dates back to Watergate). IMHO, the 'oversight' (the "Records Act") goes overboard and creates unnecessary problems and hinderances.

If memory serves, an article such as this appears every time a new Administration takes office going back into history. FDR's administration was a big shake up over Hoover's, Truman shook up FDR, and so on.

One thing that HAS changed is that the White House "staff" has exploded in size over the years. Hoover and his predecessors were relatively small. FDR, with his new activist government, added staff, and subsequent presidents kept adding more and more. Nixon's staff, for all his and Haldeman's efforts at strict control, discipline, and organization, was actually out of control and that led to Watergate.

Reply to

would make it Windows XP and Office 2003. Still functional, I use Windows XP Pro and Office 2000 though I'm gradually starting to use OpenOffice more.

Reply to

The "early people" knew very well that they had completely ignored security: they did so intentionally, knowing that the network would only ever be accessible to a few thousand DoD-approved contractors and grantees. (Many of the "early people" had spent their prior careers working on operating systems with significant security design requirements, like Multics.) There was a fundamental principle that hosts were responsible for their own security, which made[1] a great deal of sense in a world where computers required large rooms and skilled full-time staff to maintain (as opposed to today, where a resource inversion has given the "bad guys" access to vastly more computational power and network resources than the "good guys"). Nobody expected that their "walled garden" would be turned inside out.


[1] Actually, it still makes a great deal of sense, and it's how I run my network; what's changed is that it can no longer be the sole means of defense.
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