White House Shuts Down E-Mail Tip Line for Health-Care Reform Misinformation

By Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

After complaints from Republicans, the White House has shut down a two-week-old e-mail tip line where people could report "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," the White House's new media director, Macon Phillips, wrote in announcing the change.

"The White House takes online privacy very seriously," he added.

The e-mail tip line, flag@whitehouse.gov, was launched Aug. 4 as part of the White House's Health Insurance Reform Reality Check, a rapid-response effort reminiscent of the war room that the Obama campaign began last summer to fight online rumors about Obama's patriotism and religion.

But the new effort quickly sparked concern among Republicans about the 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 (Tex.) wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to the White House 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, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs sought 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 an Aug. 7 statement: "Of course the White House is collecting names. As I wrote to the president, it is inevitable."

By Aug. 11, pressure from bloggers and the mainstream media had grown to the point where the president himself addressed the concerns during a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H.

The issue surfaced again after it was reported that people were receiving e-mails from the White House that they had not signed up for. Fox News's Major Garrett asked Gibbs about the reports at a 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 announcing the end of 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 he said this was probably "a result of efforts by outside groups of all political stripes."

The problem of people being added to White House's e-mail list was separate from questions about the tip line, according to a person familiar with the system.

E-mails to the canceled address now refer people to the Reality Check site, where they can report distortions through an online interface that includes 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."

Privacy concerns also attended the administration's use of YouTube, which came with an unusual exemption to White House rules banning the use of tracking software known as cookies. A White House proposal this month to permanently change the rules on cookies has again raised these concerns; the administration is seeking to overturn the ban on the use of cookies by federal Web sites.

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