First e-mailing prez: Obama keeps his BlackBerry

White House spokesman confirms that as part of a "compromise," the new U.S. president will be able to hang on to his RIM device, making him the first to use e-mail.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read

President Barack Obama will be able to keep his beloved BlackBerry, an aide confirmed on Thursday, making him the first U.S. president to use e-mail regularly.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that, thanks to a "compromise," his boss will be able to keep a security-enhanced BlackBerry and use it for e-mail.

That will, Gibbs said, allow Obama to continue to keep in touch with people and avoid getting "stuck in a bubble." (The new Washington insider test: Do you know the president's secret e-mail address?)

Gibbs didn't offer details, but the contours of the compromise seem to be: official, work-related e-mail messages will be subject to the Presidential Records Act and the possibility of eventual disclosure. But strictly personal communications--with family, for instance--will be exempt.

This makes sense. As we reported last week, federal law explicitly exempts from disclosure any "personal records" that do not relate to the president's official function.

Those include electronic records that are "of a purely private or non-public character" and don't relate to official duties; the law lists diaries, journals, notes, and presidential campaign materials as examples. Similarly, the Freedom of Information Act prevents files from being released if the disclosure would significantly jeopardize "personal privacy."

Thursday's official confirmation ends weeks of speculation about whether Obama would follow the lead of his two immediate predecessors. Bill Clinton sent only two e-mail messages as president and has yet to pick up the habit. George W. Bush ceased using e-mail in January 2001 but said he was looking forward to e-mailing "my buddies" after leaving Washington, D.C.

"It's not just the flow of information," Obama said in a recent interview with CNBC. "I mean, I can get somebody to print out clips for me, and I can read newspapers. What it has to do with is having mechanisms where you are interacting with people who are outside of the White House in a meaningful way. And I've got to look for every opportunity to do that--ways that aren't scripted, ways that aren't controlled, ways where, you know, people aren't just complimenting you or standing up when you enter into a room, ways of staying grounded."

One limitation of the BlackBerry, though, is that it does not appear to have been certified by the National Security Agency as secure enough for Top Secret voice communications. For that, there's the chunky, unwieldy, but built-to-military-specifications Sectera Edge, a combination PDA-phone that runs Windows Mobile.

Update 2:15pm PT: Here's more from today's exchange:

GIBBS: The president has a BlackBerry, through a compromise that allows him to stay in touch with senior staff and a small group of personal friends in a way that use will be limited and that the security is enhanced to ensure his ability to communicate, but to do so effectively and to do so in a way that is protected.

Q: Are records kept?

Q: Will the records be kept?

GIBBS: The presumption regarding those emails are that they're all subject to the Presidential Records Act. There are, as you know, some narrow exemptions in the Presidential Records Act to afford for strictly personal communications. But, again, the presumption from the Counsel's Office is that they will be subject to the Presidential Records Act --

Q: -- hacker in Russia and China is already at work.

GIBBS: That's why I didn't give the email address.

Q: Are you trying to wean him off of it?

GIBBS: Nobody can do that. I think he believes that -- he believes it's a way of keeping in touch with folks, a way of doing it outside of getting stuck in a bubble.

I've gotten emails from him -- not recently, or not in a few days, I should say -- that go from anywhere from something that's very strictly business to "Why did my football team perform so miserably" on either any given Saturday or any given Sunday.

So I think he finds it as an important way to continue to communicate. There's a process by which people that have access to the email will be briefed before anything like that can happen. Jeff.

Q: How specifically will this be allowed to be used? I mean, will all members of his senior staff be able to email him? And how will you keep a proper chain of command and chain of communication with him? Who can email him and who can't?

GIBBS: Well, I'm not going to get into all those specifics, for obvious reasons. But a limited group of senior staffers and some personal friends -- it's a pretty small group of people --

Q: Can you put a rough number on it?

GIBBS: Let me get some guidance from the Counsel's Office before I do something like that, so that the hackers that Bill has instructed won't start.