White House Folds “Flag@Whitehouse.gov,” Makes Security Changes, After Internet Flaps

Aug 18, 2009 7:25am

Sunlen Miller and Jake Tapper report:

In a tacit acknowledgment of some new media missteps, the White House made changes to its White House’s “Reality Check” website this week after anger that some people were receiving unsolicited emails generated from the White House, and suggestions from a Republican senator that the White House was using an email address to compile a list of political opponents.

White House Director of Media Macon Phillips writes in a blog post that the irony is that the website, which tried to clear up misinformation caused by “fear-mongering” has now become the subject of the same beast.

“An ironic development is that the launch of an online program meant to provide facts about health insurance reform has itself become the target of fear-mongering and online rumors that are the tactics of choice for the defenders of the status quo," Phillips writes.

Macon says that it has come to his attention that some people may have been added to the White House email list without their knowledge, “likely as a result of efforts by outside groups of all political stripes” and that they regret any inconvenience it has caused.

The blog post stated that the White House continues to take online privacy very seriously.

“We’re certainly not interested in anyone receiving emails from the White House who don’t want them," says Phillips. "That’s one reason why we have never — and will never — add names from a commercial or political list to the White House list."

The change in policy comes a few days after White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked by Fox News' Major Garrett about individuals receiving unsolicited emails from the White House. (Garrett and his team have written quite a bit about this at their blog "Row 2, Seat 4.")

The White House blog, posted Monday evening on the White House website, instructs those that do not wish to receive the emails anymore to click on the “unsubscribe” tab that is in every email sent out. And the White House has now also implemented measures on the main White House website to boost the security of the mailing list.

“We will carefully evaluate signups already received to work toward preventing this problem in the future,” Macon writes.

The White House has also shut down an email address President Obama personally had to explain was not a way for him to compile an "enemies list."

Phillips had previously requested that if citizens “get an email or see something on the web about health insurance reform that seems fishy,” they “send it to flag@whitehouse.gov."

In response, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, wrote to President Obama that he was concerned “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.”

The Texas Republican said it seemed “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.”

Last week at a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, NH, one self-described "skeptic" of the President's health care reform push said he was "one of the people that turned myself in on the White House Web page the other day for being a skeptic of this bill. I'm proud to have done so."

"Can I just say this is another example of how the media just ends up completely distorting what’s taking place," President Obama responded. "What we’ve said is that…if you get an email from somebody that says for example, 'ObamaCare is creating a death panel,' forward us the email and we will answer the question that is being raised in the email. Suddenly, on some of these news outlets, this is being portrayed as Obama collecting an enemies list. Now, come on guys, here I am trying to be responsive to questions that are being raised out there."

But as of this week, flag@whitehouse.gov is now dead.

“To better understand what new misinformation is bubbling up online or in other venues, we want your suggestions about topics to address through the Reality Check site," Phillips writes. "To consolidate the process, the email address set up last week for this same purpose is now closed and all feedback should be sent through: here."

Macon writes that despite some in the media and in the blogosphere that have invoked “a variety of sinister conspiracy theorists” about the reality check website, more people signed up for updates last week than during the entire month of July – showing that the updates are wanted.

-Sunlen Miller and Jake Tapper

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