A presidential “legacy” via rewritten history

Web archiving is a topic of great interest to me and the subject of an article I’m writing.  Part of the paper addresses the Bush administration’s questionable conduct regarding the content of the White house website.  For example, the White House website’s robots exclusion file — a mechanism that can be used to ask search engine and web archive spiders to stay away — is nearly 2300 lines long.  2300 lines?  Simply absurd.  (Click here for a copy of the White House robots file that I downloaded on Nov. 25, 2008.)

Today, researchers at the University of Illinois released a study showing how the White House has deleted or modified portions of its website.  Their findings are, sadly, unsurprising:

Legacies are in the air as President Bush prepares to leave the White House. How future historians will judge the president remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: future historians won’t have all the facts needed to make that judgment. One legacy at risk of being forgotten is the way the Bush White House has quietly deleted or modified key documents in the public record that are maintained under its direct control.

Remember the “Coalition of the Willing” that sided with the United States during the 2003 invasion of Iraq? If you search the White House web site today you’ll find a press release dated March 27, 2003 listing 49 countries forming the coalition. A key piece of evidence in the historical record, but also a troubling one. It is an impostor.

And although there were only 45 coalition members on the eve of the Iraq invasion, later deletions and revisions to key documents make it seem that there were always 49.

The study is a disturbing read.  Rightly or not, a primary source of history for many researchers is the web.  And any effort by the government to modify or delete historical records is appalling.  As the authors note:

Updating lists to keep up with the times is one thing. Deleting original documents from the White House archives is another. Back-dating later documents and using them to replace the originals goes beyond irresponsible stewardship of the public record. It is rewriting history.

H/T: New York Times.

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