About a month after Elena Kagan moved into the Clinton White House in the summer of 1995 as an associate counsel, the potential future Supreme Court justice was still getting her bearings.
“Is there someplace I can get a mouse pad?” she e-mailed a colleague.
That message — a trivial but intimate glimpse into the fact even powerful bureaucrats have office-supply problems — has been an Internet favorite since Kagan’s entire trove of Clinton-era email correspondence was released ahead of her confirmation hearings.
The Clinton Library, as part of the National Archives, published the messages. The Sunlight Foundation then put the 13,000 in- and outgoing threads online in a searchable format remarkably similar to a gmail account.
Anyone now can troll through Kagan’s old inbox. The principle isn’t new; the 1978 Presidential Records Act made all official White House records the legal property of the public. Kagan’s e-mails on her old White House account belong, in other words, to us (and technically, they’ve been subject to Freedom of Information Act requests since 2006).
But our technological ability today to sort through her chitchat about office meetings and intern work ramps up the whole concept. It’s one thing to have archivists come in at the end of an administration — literally at noon on the day of a new inauguration — and cart off all the hard drives for posterity. It’s quite another to actually make all this stuff accessible.
“The first reaction is: This is really boring but really cool,” said Sunlight Labs director Tom Lee, talking about the feedback the foundation has received. “I’m glad to have that, I think that it is a useful way to get context about someone who’s potentially going to be a really powerful person in government. There are a few who say, ‘This is a little bit creepy, what would happen if my e-mails were all made public as I was trying to get a job?’
“I’m sympathetic to that,” he said. But given that the Presidential Records Act deems this information public, Lee doesn’t see any reason why the only people who should get to browse it are professional archivists and journalists with the technical skills to sort through the material.
If anything, such an accessible database online protects the public — and former public officials — from gatekeepers who would parse and interpret the material for the rest of us.
“My hope is that this will change the way we look at these document dumps,” Lee said. “It’s too often the case that they’re released late on a Friday afternoon, a bunch of journalists are instructed by their editors to skim through it as quickly as they can to find snippets of text that can be used in a gotcha write-up. Then there’s either a firestorm or not. This lets you get a less titillating, deeper understanding of the individual being considered.”
In fact, Kagan’s e-mails have been mostly void of gotcha controversy. About nine in 10 are pretty boring. They discuss draft language for upcoming speeches. There are endless daily reports. Even the string subject-lined “racial profiling” is mostly about “data collection.”
One of the most intriguing threads – subject line: “Two G-rated Jewish jokes” – turns out to be blank when you open up the messages. (Lee does not suspect foul play, but rather technological glitch as the data traveled through many cumbersome conversions on its way from the White House, to the Clinton Library, to the Sunlight web site.)
Perhaps more instructive is what people have been fishing for. The Elena’s Inbox interface allows viewers to search the messages, as you would on Gmail, for specific hot phrases and words.
Prepare to be disappointed if you click on that last one.