Apropos of Hillary Clinton’s forever e-mail problems, it’s worth marking the approach of the 30th anniversary of the very first government electronic-mail scandal. On Friday, November 22, 1986, Oliver North sat down at his National Security Council computer and began deleting e-mails related to Iran/Contra, the far-reaching conspiracy in which North, along with others in Ronald Reagan’s administration, traded high-tech missiles to revolutionary Iran, diverting the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, in violation of Congress’s Boland Amendment. North, with the scandal about to explode in the press, deleted about 750 e-mails from his “notelogs.” North’s boss, the head of the NSC, John Poindexter, deleted another 5,012.
The other day, Peter Van Buren, a 24-year career officer at the State Department, provided a fascinating firsthand account of the very late adoption of e-mail by the department. Well past 2000, State was still using an old Wang mainframe and barely had the ability to send e-mail out of department. The White House, in contrast, was using e-mail as early as 1982, using an IBM application called PROFS (PRofessional OFfice System). PROFS had no “select all,” “delete all” function. So, in addition to the paper documents that needed to be shredded, and the other records smuggled out of the office in Fawn Hall’s boots, North and Poindexter had to sit at their respective terminals and delete each message individually. A massive amount of information was destroyed that weekend.
Since e-mail was so new, North and Poindexter presumed that the communications weren’t subject to either the Presidential Records Act or the Freedom of Information Act. They thought they had a secure back channel to organize the many different tentacles that comprised the Iran/Contra octopus: not just trading arms with Iran, but raising money from various domestic (including Ross Perot!) and foreign (such as the Sultan of Brunei, Saudi “princes,” and Colombian drug traffickers) sources to support a myriad of off-the-books covert operations, including running an illegal propaganda campaign within the United States to isolate critics and build support for Reagan’s foreign policy.
The digital ether, however, was a short-lived covert utopia. Career service officers in charge of recycling the White House’s magnetic backup tapes, learning of the various crimes being committed in the Reagan White House, handed the tapes over to the FBI. In subsequent years, the e-mails that North and Poindexter thought they had destroyed were used by the various Senate, House, and independent-counsel investigations into Iran/Contra, including Senator John Kerry’s inquiry into the use of drug traffickers. Poindexter was convicted of conspiracy, destruction of records, and obstruction of Congress, among other charges; North, of altering and destroying documents.