Into the memory hole — and out again

This, thought Winston, was the most frightening aspect of the party regime-that it could obliterate memory, turn lies into Truth and alter the Past.

To those familiar with Orwell’s prescient novel1984, the above words describe a situation where the official version of past and current reality was continually altered to reflect the latest propaganda from Big  Brother.

These words also describe the routine alteration of “official” documents by the Bush administration.  A pair of  faculty members from the University of Illinois noted the ever-changing nature of the press releases about the so-called Coalition of the Willing, the list of U.S. allies who had signed on to support the current Iraq war.

There were 45 nations in the “Coalition of the Willing” when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Or 46 or 48 or 49.

The number depends on which version of key White House news releases you read.

Different versions of three releases all appear to be the originals. But the words are different and so are the facts, depending on when, over a period of several years, you accessed the releases on the White House Web site.

And in the case of two releases, the original document is simply missing from the site.

The root question is how did this happen: was it sloppiness or was it a plot to rewrite the historical record to hide potentially embarrassing information?    The circumstantial evidence certainly suggests an attempt to cover the unwillingness among members of the “Coalition of the Willing” to be associated with the disastrous invasion of Iraq as more and more of them jumped ship and withdrew whatever “contribution” they might have been making.

But the larger problem for historians trying to make sense of the doings of the Bush administration is how to keep track of the original documents and how to determine whether anything has been altered or deleted.   In one very narrow area concerning the “Coalition of the Willing” two University of Illinois researchers have demonstrated  the difficulties that future historians might face.

The Bush White House has been rewriting part of its history, according to University of Illinois researchers Scott Althaus (ALL’-touse) and Kalev Leetaru (KAHL’-iv lee-TAR-oo). It “has quietly deleted or modified key documents in the public record that are maintained under its direct control,” they write, in a report posted online this week and cited in a story in The New York Times.

Their detailed evidence focuses on five releases. They have not yet looked for changes to other documents on the White House Web site, and do not know why the changes were made. (Was it sloppy work by webmasters? Or were there political motives?)

But the evidence still leads them to “the troubling conclusion that major changes to the public record of the United States were not isolated events,” Althaus and Leetaru write. They are the first to show a pattern of changes in documents over time, but note that others have, on previous occasions, pointed to suspicious changes to archived documents on the White House Web site.

They are concerned enough about the potential implications – for the historical record, future scholarship and the interest of the American public – that they are suggesting others do their own online research over the next two months.

The current White House website will likely be removed when the new administration takes office on January 20.    So it is imperative that researchers retrieve and archive information for their files now since the information may not again be available for an indeterminate period of time.

Althaus is a professor of political science and of communication at Illinois, as well as a faculty affiliate of the university’s Cline Center for  Democracy, which has posted the report. Leetaru is the center’s coordinator of information technology and research. He also is affiliated with the U. of I.’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Science.

Information is often malleable and ever-changing on the Web, especially on pages understood to be informational, and the researchers said they realize that can make their concerns seem overblown.

They argue, however, that “updating lists to keep up with the times is one thing. Deleting original documents from the White House archives is another. Back-dating later documents and using them to replace the originals goes beyond irresponsible stewardship of the public record. It is rewriting history.”

They also note that though they are the first to document these revisions in archived news releases, they are not the first to note “unusual content changes” on the White House Web site. In one case, following the vice-presidential debate of Oct. 5, 2004, between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, and a contentious exchange during that debate about coalition casualties, several news reports noted the disappearance of the coalition list from the White House site. (When the document was later returned to the site, Althaus and Leetaru discovered, it was backdated a year earlier, with one country missing.)

Althaus said he discovered the problem by accident. A proofreader checking an article of which Althaus was a co-author discovered that a previously recorded Web address to one of the archived news releases now led to a blank page. Althaus confirmed that the document had been deleted, and that related White House lists of coalition countries appeared to contradict one another, even though they sometimes carried the same date.

He then showed his findings to Leetaru, an expert in online research, and Leetaru’s analysis revealed that several of the White House releases had been revised after the fact to list different numbers and names of coalition countries.

Eerily, this revision and re-dating of press releases sounds like it has been ripped from the pages of 1984. Winston would be familiar with the ever-changing official history — and most Americans today probably are unaware of how much the Bush White House has employed Orwellian memory holes.

But all is not lost.  Althaus and Leetaru have demonstrated how concerned internet users can pick a particular area of interest and create as complete a record as possible. They used the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive to search for earlier versions of the White House website.    For those who might not have heard of it before, the Internet Archive is a non-profit organization devoted to documenting changes in the Internet. Through its Wayback Machine, the organization takes snapshots of Web content every few weeks or months, and then notes where documents have been modified or deleted.

There is no lack of topics — Yellow cake from Niger, Mission Accomplished, Scooter Libby, Valerie Plame, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Kyoto Accords, Hurricane Katrina warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, to name just a few areas where there seem to have been some ever-changing stories from the White House — and a whole lot more just waiting for diligent internet junkies to dig in and docoment.

You may start your search engines ….. NOW!

We must not let this lame duck regime alter the past record and control the narrative of their doings.  As Orwell wrote:

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”

Explore posts in the same categories: 1984, Bush administration, George Orwell, memory hole, Uncategorized

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