Aug 062009
 
 August 6, 2009  Posted by  Featured News, Govt

The White House raised the spectre of “Big Brother” this week after a blog entry asked supporters to report “fishy” information they receive regarding the debate on healthcare reform by forwarding emails to [email protected]:

There is a lot of disinformation about health insurance reform out there, spanning from control of personal finances to end of life care. These rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation. 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 email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to [email protected]

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) responded with a letter to the President. The text of Senator Cornyn’s letter to President Obama:

Dear President Obama,

I write to express my concern about a new White House program to monitor American citizens’ speech opposing your health care policies, and to seek your assurances that this program is being carried out in a manner consistent with the First Amendment and America’s tradition of free speech and public discourse.

Yesterday, in an official White House release entitled “Facts are Stubborn Things,” the White House Director of New Media, Macon Phillips, asserted that there was “a lot of disinformation out there,” and encouraged citizens to report “fishy” speech opposing your health care policies to the White House. Phillips specifically targeted private, unpublished, even casual speech, writing that “rumors often travel just below the surface via chain emails or through casual conversation.” Phillips wrote “If you get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy, send it to [email protected]

I am not aware of any precedent for a President asking American citizens to report their fellow citizens to the White House for pure political speech that is deemed “fishy” or otherwise inimical to the White House’s political interests.

By requesting that citizens send “fishy” emails to the White House, it is inevitable that the names, email 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. As Congress debates health care reform and other critical policy matters, citizen engagement must not be chilled by fear of government monitoring the exercise of free speech rights.

I can only imagine the level of justifiable outrage had your predecessor asked Americans to forward emails critical of his policies to the White House. I suspect that you would have been leading the charge in condemning such a program-and I would have been at your side denouncing such heavy-handed government action.

So I urge you to cease this program immediately. At the very least, I request that you detail to Congress and the public the protocols that your White House is following to purge the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and identities of citizens who are reported to have engaged in “fishy” speech. And I respectfully request an answer to the following:

  • How do you intend to use the names, email addresses, IP addresses, and identities of citizens who are reported to have engaged in “fishy” speech?
  • How do you intend to notify citizens who have been reported for “fishy” speech?
  • What action do you intend to take against citizens who have been reported for engaging in “fishy” speech?
  • Do your own past statements qualify as “disinformation”? For example, is it “disinformation” to note that in 2003 you said:”I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan”?

I look forward to your prompt response.

While the politics are both sides are fairly evident, it is worth noting that as Tony Bradley points out, the White House does preserve all correspondence it receives, so that if an email you wrote to your friend got forwarded to the White House by a third party, your email would be documented in the National Archives. Some people might not be concerned about that, but having your email archived without your knowledge or consent is a privacy issue for others.

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