Amid Privacy Concerns, White House Shuts Down Health-Care Tip Line
By Garance Franke-Ruta
Following complaints from Republicans, the White House has shut down a two-week-old e-mail tip line launched to take reports from citizens of "disinformation about health insurance reform."
"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," wrote White House new media director Macon Phillips in announcing the change.
"The White House takes online privacy very seriously," he added.
The e-mail tip line, email@example.com, was launched Aug. 4 as part of the White House's Health Insurance Reform Reality Check effort, a campaign-style rapid-response effort reminiscent of the war room Obama for America launched in the summer of 2008 to fight online rumors about the then-senator's patriotism and religion.
But coming from the head of state, rather than a political candidate, the new effort quickly sparked concern among Republicans about the propriety of government collecting information on private citizens' political speech.
"I am not aware of any precedent for a president asking American citizens to report their fellow citizens to the White House for pure political speech that is deemed 'fishy' or otherwise inimical to the White House's political interests," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) wrote the White House in a letter Aug. 5 that called for an end to the program.
"By requesting that citizens send 'fishy' emails to the White House, it is 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," wrote Cornyn, who is also chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"I can only imagine the level of justifiable outrage had your predecessor asked Americans to forward e-mails critical of his policies to the White House," Cornyn added. "I suspect that you would have been leading the charge in condemning such a program -- and I would have been at your side denouncing such heavy-handed government action."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs sought unsuccessfully to tamp down concerns at a briefing the next day, saying, "We're not collecting names from those e-mails. ... All we're asking people to do is, if they're confused about what health-care reform is going to mean to them, we're happy to help clear that up for you. Nobody is keeping anybody's names."
Cornyn kept up the pressure, scoffing in a statement Aug. 7, "Of course the White House is collecting names. As I wrote to the President, it is inevitable. ... The question is not what the White House is doing, but how and why. How are they purging names and email addresses from this account to protect privacy? Why do they need the forwarded emails, names, and 'casual conversations' sent to them instead of just the arguments that they want to rebut?"
By Aug. 11, pressure from bloggers and mainstream media had grown to the point where the president himself felt compelled to address the concerns during a town hall in Portsmouth, N.H.
"Suddenly, on some of these news outlets, this is being portrayed as 'Obama collecting an enemies list,' " Obama said. "Now, come on, guys."
The issue again surfaced after reports began to circulate of individuals getting e-mails from the White House that they had never signed up for. Fox News's Major Garrett asked Gibbs about the reports at the briefing Thursday, telling him, "I have received e-mails from people who did not, in any way, shape, or form, seek any communication from the White House."
In shutting down the e-mail tip line, Phillips acknowledged, "It has come to our attention that some people may have been subscribed to our email lists without their knowledge" but said that it came "likely as a result of efforts by outside groups of all political stripes."
E-mails to the canceled address now refer users to the Reality Check site, where they can continue to report distortions, but through a Web-based interface and with the warning, "Please refrain from submitting any individual's personal information, including their email address, without their permission."
Cornyn hailed the decision but said he would still like more information on how the program worked. "I'm glad the White House recognizes its own bad idea and has disabled their data collection program. They've finally come to their senses and acknowledged that this is compromising citizens' free speech rights by causing them to be concerned whether complaints will be compiled into some sort of enemies list," he said. "Questions still remain about information that's already been collected over the past few weeks."
Posted at 4:14 PM ET on Aug 18, 2009
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