White House Wag: Bush Logs Off

Maybe the lawyers were still tired from the Florida recount.

That's one possible explanation for some inaccurate advice President Bush says he received from his legal team.

The New York Times reports Bush recently bid farewell to a list of e-mail buddies out of fear the messages would be released under public records laws.

"My lawyers tell me that all correspondence by e-mail is subject to open record requests," the incoming president wrote in a final Jan. 18 missive. "Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you."

While the president was probably wise to end his practice of sending online updates to his friends and relatives, he misstated the law. A host of court cases make clear that the federal Freedom of Information Act does not apply to communications involving the president or his closest advisers. Anyone who sends a so-called FOIA request to the White House will get a prompt reply to that effect.

Eventually, nearly all White House records become public through the National Archives collections at presidential libraries. Of course, there are many other ways that White House records can get into the public domain more quickly. They can be subpoenaed for use in criminal trials or civil lawsuits. But the most frequent and direct path to the public is via Capitol Hill.

During the Clinton administration, thousands of documents about the president's aggressive fundraising efforts, including some in Clinton's own handwriting, were made public. They had been subpoenaed by prosecutors and congressional committees and, in the end, the White House decided to release them to the press rather than let Republicans in Congress do the leaking. (The Clinton team could also have fought the subpoenas on the ground of executive privilege, but it chose to avoid such a high-profile fight.)

So while President Bush would have been running a substantial risk of reading his own words in the press if he'd kept up his group e-mails, it wasn't exactly the risk he described. Of course, he now finds himself reading one of his own messages in the Times, suggesting that the biggest threat of a leak may not have been the law or a subpoena, but his own pen pals.

Movie List Unveiled

In a column last September, I complained that while politicians were stirring up outrage over the marketing of R-rated films to kids, we didn't know which films they were talking about. And neither did they.

The Federal Trade Commission, which set off the pre-election squawking by releasing a study of movie marketing, wouldn't say which films it examined. I suggested that some parents might not object to their kids seeing ads for some R-rated films. The Patriot, after all, is not Porky's.

Well, thankfully, FOIA does apply to the commission. And after a few months in the bureaucratic morass, my request for the list of films whose marketing plans were studied has come through. So, in the spirit of making information gathered with taxpayer dollars available to the public, here are the R-rated ones:

Summer of Sam The 13th Warrior Enemy of the State Deep Rising Con Air Judge Dredd The Rage: Carrie 2 Disturbing Behavior Species II Stigmata Alien Resurrection Fight Club The Siege Bride of Chucky End of Days Mercury Rising The Jackal Fear Halloween H20 The Faculty Scream Scream 2 Phantoms Mimic The Corruptor American History X Blade 8MM I Know What You Did Last Summer I Still Know What You Did Last Summer Starship Troopers Replacement Killers The Matrix House on Haunted Hill Chill Factor Lethal Weapon 4 The Negotiator The General's Daughter Payback Kiss the Girls Event Horizon Face/Off The Relic Sleepy Hollow

Sometimes too much information can be as frustrating as too little. While the FTC revealed the names of all 60 movies it investigated, it didn't say which 35 allegedly tried to target teenagers. I suppose another request is in order, but I don't have the patience to wait another five months.

Catch-22

Patience is something you need a lot of it when seeking government records. Requests to the FBI often take five years; those to the CIA can take a decade. But the National Security Council has come up with a Catch-22 Joseph Heller would be proud of.

Back in May 1996, I wrote to the NSC for some information on Sen. Bob Dole, who was then running for president. And I waited. And waited. Until earlier this year, when I got a helpful letter from the NSC. It let me know that, although four and a half years had passed, the NSC's staff still hadn't got around to my request.

"Records that may be responsive to your request will be transferred to...the Clinton Presidential Library," the letter said. It also noted that presidential records are generally withheld from historical researchers for five years and suggested that I write in again after Jan. 20, 2006.

The NSC has boasted that it will follow FOIA, even though courts have said it needn't. But if requests can't be processed in the course of one presidential term, that promise to follow the law becomes pretty hollow.