White House stops collecting ‘fishy’ e-mails

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The White House on Monday shut down its controversial effort to collect information about what opponents of the president’s health care overhaul were saying in person and on the Internet, but said it will continue to track “misinformation” through its Web site.

Republicans vowed to investigate the campaign, which they said was reminiscent of President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” and Big Brother in the novel “1984”.

The White House was mum on the matter throughout the day Monday, and then posted a brief blog item in the evening explaining the changes it was making to the program that it launched earlier this month in response to growing opposition to the president’s health care reform proposals.

Macon Phillips, director of new media at the White House, wrote that it was “ironic that the launch of an online program meant to provide facts about health insurance reform has itself become the target of fear-mongering.”

He said an e-mail address set up to collect information about “fishy” rumors circulating by e-mail, Web sites and conversation had been shut down. But he added that the White House will continue to gather information through its Web site, “to better understand what new misinformation is bubbling up online or in other venues.”

He requested that people who flag information for the White House and submit it via the Web site “refrain from submitting others’ information without permission,” but he did not rule out that that might still happen.

Republicans said they intended to look into the matter further. Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, sent a letter Monday to White House Counsel Gregory B. Craig, asking for more information.

“The fear has been expressed that the White House was asking neighbors to inform on neighbors in a government-led data collection effort,” Mr. Issa wrote in the four-page letter. “To help ease these concerns, please tell us what actions take place or have been discussed in regard to e-mails deemed ‘fishy’ and what safeguards the White House has put in place to insure no retributive steps are taken against those who express dissent.”

The White House has not responded to Mr. Issa’s questions.

The controversy was touched off when Mr. Phillips began an effort to counter “disinformation about health insurance reform” in an entry posted Aug. 4 on the White House Web site blog.

“Rumors often travel just below the surface via chain e-mails or through casual conversation,” Mr. Phillips wrote. “Since we can’t keep track of all of them here at the White House, we’re asking for your help. If you get an e-mail or see something on the Web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to flag@whitehouse.gov.”

Republicans and conservative groups quickly pointed out that because the Presidential Records Act requires the White House to keep a record of all its communication, it could not get rid of forwarded e-mails that included information about ordinary Americans even if they wanted to.

“It is inevitable that the names, e-mail addresses, IP addresses and private speech of U.S. citizens will be reported to the White House. You should not be surprised that these actions taken by your White House staff raise the specter of a data collection program,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, in a letter to the White House on Aug. 5.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal organization based in Washington, said Monday that it was happy to see the White House program discontinued.

“This program was problematic from the very beginning, and we called on President Obama to rescind it,” said Jay Sekulow, ACLJ’s chief counsel. “This ‘flagging’ operation was nothing more than an attempt to stifle free speech and intimidate those who did not agree with the president.”

The White House said that the blog post by Mr. Phillips, who has a background in politics, was vetted by the communications office. But an administration spokesman did not answer questions about whether the vetting process for the White House blog, which has become a central part of whitehouse.gov, is the same as the one used for other public communications.

Mr. Issa, in his letter, requested information about why and how e-mails were apparently sent by the White House last week to everyday Americans who had never asked to be contacted by the administration.

Fox News, in particular, has collected hundreds of e-mails received by people who said they never signed up for communication by e-mail or otherwise from the White House. The e-mail sent last week, and received by people who say they did not ask for White House communication, was written by David Axelrod, a top adviser to the president, on the topic of health care reform.

Mr. Issa, in his letter, asked the White House whether “political or commercial e-mail address lists were used” to add people to the administration’s recipient list.

Mr. Phillips noted in his blog posting that “it has come to our attention that some people may have been subscribed to our e-mail lists without their knowledge - likely as a result of efforts by outside groups of all political stripes - and we regret any inconvenience caused by receiving an unexpected message.”

He said that the White House Web site had increased the security of its mailing list and blamed “bloggers and others in the media that have invoked a variety of sinister conspiracy theories.”

“It’s clear that a lot of Americans appreciate getting updates from the White House,” he said.

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