The White House was using a technique called web scrubbing to make offending comments on Iraq disappear from its website, Dana Milbank reported December 18, 2003, in the Washington Post, because "White House officials were steamed when Andrew S. Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said earlier [in the year] that U.S. taxpayers would not have to pay more than $1.7 billion to reconstruct Iraq -- which turned out to be a gross understatement of the tens of billions of dollars the government now expects to spend,... the government purged the offending comments by Natsios from the agency's Web site. The transcript, and links to it, have vanished," Milbank wrote.
Milbank continued to state that "This is not the first time the administration has done some creative editing of government Web sites. After the insurrection in Iraq proved more stubborn than expected, the White House edited the original headline on its Web site of President George W. Bush's May 1  speech, 'President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended,' to insert the word 'Major' before combat.
"Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, administration Web sites have been scrubbed for anything vaguely sensitive, and passwords are now required to access even much unclassified information. Though it is not clear whether the White House is directing the changes, several agencies have been following a similar pattern. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and USAID have removed or revised fact sheets on condoms, excising information about their effectiveness in disease prevention, and promoting abstinence instead. The National Cancer Institute, meanwhile, scrapped claims on its Web site that there was no association between abortion and breast cancer. And the Justice Department recently redacted criticism of the department in a consultant's report that had been posted on its Web site," Milbank wrote.
What appears on the internet, stays on the internet
Gabe Goldberg pointed out in July 2002 in Government Computer News that "When cuneiform stone tablets represented state-of-the-art printing, the best records retention policy was 'Don't drop them.' Each successive form of IT--printing press, filing cabinet, copier, e-mail and Internet--has made it harder to control information flow and access, and especially to reclaim freely disseminated material."
The events of September 11, 2001, "changed the rules," he said, "forcing government agencies to re-evaluate data they'd put online, such as infrastructure layouts." However, he said, "anything available on the Internet--Web pages, Usenet newsgroup postings and even some e-mail--is difficult to remove from public view. You may not realize how widely replicated and long-lived content can be."
"Today's leading search engines, such as google.com, fetch links to current Web pages. But most links returned include a cached option, allowing viewing pages even after they've been removed from host sites.
"The Wayback Machine at www.archive.org/index.html archives many years of data. For example, it displays the www.whitehouse.gov site site from December 1996.
"Surprise! Scrubbing pages off Web servers doesn't make them unavailable. At best, it delays finding them," Goldberg wrote.
Related SourceWatch Resources
- Gabe Goldberg, "Is Web scrubbing an exercise in futility?" Government Computer News, July 29, 2002.
- Dana Milbank, "Offending Comments on Iraq Disappear From Site," Washington Post, December 18, 2003.
- "White House Covers Tracks by Removing Information," misleader.org, December 18, 2003.
- Natsios interview with Ted Koppel (removed from USAID.gov site) Wayback archive, April 23, 2003.