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White House Scandal: Unanswered Questions

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It started with a series of straightforward questions from Fox News correspondent Major Garrett to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.  Garrett’s bottom-line inquiry: How did thousands of Americans, who had never contacted the White House previously, receive unsolicited political emails authored by top administration strategist David Axelrod?    In response, Gibbs and his press office colleagues undertook a strategy of dismissing the core issue, impugning the questioner, shifting blame, and vaguely pledging to change White House email policy.  Still, the basic question of exactly how the White House came to possess countless private email addresses remains unanswered.  The public deserves a thorough and precise explanation.

The latest development in this mini-tempest—playing out nearly exclusively on Fox and in the conservative blogosphere—is that the White House now admits it hired a Minnesota-based public communications firm (GovDelivery) to distribute an infamous Obamacare propaganda email, authored by Axelrod.  Fox reports:

The White House hired a private communications company based in Minnesota to distribute mass e-mails, helping to shed light on how some recipients received e-mails in support of President Obama's health care plan without signing up for them, FOX News has learned.

The company, Govdelivery, describes itself as the world's leading provider of government-to-citizen communication solutions and says its e-mail service provides a fully-automated on-demand public communication system.

It is still unknown how much taxpayer money the White House provides to Govdelivery for its services.

Again, it’s still a mystery just how the White House obtained the email addresses targeted by Axelrod's talking points e-blast in the first place, especially since many recipients insist they've never contacted the White House or the Obama campaign in any capacity.  

After arrogant dismissals of Major Garrett's questions wore thin, the administration began blaming "outside groups" for compiling the email lists in question.  In other words, they claim, people may have signed online petitions for independent advocacy groups, who then forwarded those petitions—email addresses included—to the White House.   At which point, supposedly, the White House's super-sophisticated mega-email system ingested all of the incoming addresses by default, adding them to a master email listserv.  I'm not an expert on mass emails, but that explanation strikes me as a tad fishy.

This account has also proven problematic because many of the original citizens who complained about receiving unsolicited political emails have subsequently stated that they did not sign any online petitions for any groups whatsoever.

So what happened here?’s Allahpundit posted a portion of an email I sent earlier in the week, describing a series of phone calls I received on my radio program last Sunday:

I mentioned this controversy on my show last week & got lots of calls from people who never signed up for WH emails (and never contacted the WH/Obama campaign for any reason), and who still got spammed by Axelrod/Govdelivery. What they all had in common, though, was that they had each emailed their Democrat representatives…within a week of getting the Axelrod email…

Could there have been an unspoken/unofficial effort by the Democrat party asking its elected members to forward all constituent correspondence on health care to a centralized DC location….like, say, the “flag” snitch address? Perhaps that’s how these email lists were compiled.

Two callers in particular supported this theory.  One gentleman told me he’d emailed Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) to register opposition to the House health care bill. He received an email response from Bean's office the next day (entirely appropriate), followed by the Axelrod email a few days later.  Another caller said she'd contacted Sen. Debbie Stabenow's (D-Mich.) office for a similar reason.  She, too, heard first from Stabenow's staff, then from Axelrod.  Again, neither caller had ever been in touch with the White House.

The suggestion I raised above merits further scrutiny. Could the aforementioned "outside groups" include the political offices of elected Democrats?  It stands to reason: If the White House set up a (now defunct) email account asking average Americans to inform on one another regarding health care "misinformation," wouldn't constituent correspondence sent directly to elected representatives serve as a natural gold mine for culling opponents' arguments against the president's plan?  One wonders if certain Democratic members chose to pass along this information on their own initiative, or if they were responding to encouragement (read: following orders) from the White House to do so.

As others have pointed out, this story would be a behemoth of a scandal if, say, Republican members had forwarded anti-Iraq War emails to the Bush administration, which then blasted out unsolicited pro-war talking points from Karl Rove to thousands of unaware or unwilling recipients.  

For what it’s worth, the company hired—at taxpayer expense, presumably—to execute the questionable government-to-citizen mass says it merely disseminates end-product items from public sector sources.  It does not create the content, nor does it provide email lists to its clients.  GovDelivery co-founder Scott Burns, writing for the scintillatingly-named publication Federal Computer Week in May 2009, described his company this way:

GovDelivery itself is a Web-hosted system just like Facebook or Twitter or any of those services. We’re a part of the Web 2.0 arena by default because our service is hosted, so everybody – whether it’s the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], the city of Berkley, Calif., or the British Parliament – everybody is using the same basic platform.

The federal government now sends about 140 million email, text messages and wireless messages per month through GovDelivery.

Citizens select the information they want from the agency’s Web site and our platform sends out that messaged information. [Me: Perhaps the Obama administration was hoping the phase out the whole 'citizen selection' element] We’re functioning in the background, helping the agency by providing the software platform to manage its communications process…

There is enthusiasm about digital communication in general but the election of President [Barack] Obama is adding to the momentum for better communication with the public. We’ve had a major upgrade in our system and in the additional Web 2.0 capabilities we offer because of the enthusiasm of the new administration.

 (Emphasis added)

The White House is pointing to the fact that GovDelivery also does work for Republicans, like Governor Rick Perry of Texas, as a defense of its actions.  This is an irrelevant argument.  The crucial question is just how much "enthusiasm" the new administration truly has about engaging in new forms of digital communication with the public.  Members of said public have a right to know how the White House got its hands on scores of private email addresses, and whether Democrats were surreptitiously using constituent correspondence and the email account to assemble new mass lists—without the knowledge or permission of those on the lists—in order to distribute partisan talking points.

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