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Renegade’s Blackberry: To give or not to give

Renegade’s Blackberry: To give or not to give


by Binoy Kampmark

The US secret service codename him Renegade. But will Barack Obama conform and relinquish his treasured Blackberry? Probably: the pressures of those padding, muffling forces within such a bureaucratic creature as the White House may hold sway. The cardinal command from his advisors and entourage: thou shalt not email during your time in office. Such a blow to autonomy must be crushing, and demonstrates more than ever how the most powerful individual on the planet may be unable to withstand faceless information brokers closest to him.

The fears? Hacking, for one. Personal correspondence on the system might be available for public consumption. (Everything about this Presidency is seemingly digestible.) The problems of hacking remain an occupational hazard, and no official is immune. If pubescent hackers permanently affixed to their screens are able to penetrate Obama’s BlackBerry, it would say more about the president-elect’s staff than anybody else.

Besides, goes one line of argument justifying the retention of the device, he looks ‘real’ (not that reality was ever a feature of the White House), communicative, accessible to his friends. Advisors hover like vultures picking at the truth; Obama’s BlackBerry is the pathway to truth. Yet again, American politics is able to conjure up a narrative of struggle against the odds – this time, it’s not the odds of race but those of truth seeking to break free.

Something so trifling has caused its predictable ripples through the public. Callers on public radio are urging various positions. One rang the National Public Radio (19 November) to say how he used to work in the encryption business for the Office of Homeland Security. Let him keep it, he reasoned, because the technology to encrypt is good enough to resist the cyber curious. Another endorses the line. Shows he’s got technological initiative, and won’t fall for the Luddite capers of the Republicans (fools, came the lament of the young voters, who could ‘barely operate a computer’).

Underlying much of this debate is a subconscious tendency in the American psyche: an aversion against taking time off work. What is a puritan’s virtue often turns out to be a vice. The leader of the ‘free world’ should be denied this pleasure: crackberry additions are here to stay, since a man in Obama’s position is simply not entitled to have time off. There are economies to save, wars to wage, and new worlds to win. Things have changed since the days when Dwight D. Eisenhower could go for a game of golf, even as the global arms race was escalating.

But this irritating smokescreen (there are surely better things to be talking about?) masks something far more serious. That his should be the presidency of transparency would make many suspicions moot. Surely, material made available (afterall, it takes twelve years before they are even publicly accessible), should be made so on principle. Legislation is in place to assure that. That there is an aversion to this is a testament to the triumph of President George W. Bush (more so Vice President Dick Cheney), who made getting to presidential records more difficult than ever. Indeed, Dick went so far as to claim he wasn’t part of the executive in order to deny public access to his records.

Trails (email, paper, call them what you will) are bound to be left, constituting a treasured presidential record that will not merely interest ferreting historians. All the more interesting, given that this presidency promises to be a path-breaking one. Perhaps the most secretive presidency in the history of the republic has simply made paranoids of most of us.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

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