Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama may have to bury his beloved BlackBerry

2 minutes 30 seconds

Obama may have to bury his beloved BlackBerry

WASHINGTON - Before he ran for president, Barack Obama quit smoking. Now that he's won the job, he may have to break another addiction: checking his BlackBerry for email.

The president's email can be subpoenaed by Congress and courts and may be subject to public records laws, so if a president doesn't want his e-mail public, he shouldn't email, experts said. And there may be security issues about carrying around trackable cellphones.

Obama transition officials haven't made a decision on what the new president will or will not carry but those who have been there say it's unlikely he'll carry his BlackBerry and he may be in for some withdrawal pains.

"Definitely he's going to feel an electronic detoxing," said Reed Dickens, former assistant press secretary to President George W. Bush. Dickens jokes he is so addicted to his BlackBerry he checks his device before opening his right eye.

Obama has often been seen avidly checking his email on his hand-held equipment. This past summer, news cameras recorded him checking his BlackBerry while watching his daughter's soccer game, only to have Michelle Obama slap at his hands, prompting him to return the device to its holster.

Actress Scarlett Johansson said she has had frequent email exchanges with him during his campaign travels, something the Obama campaign downplayed.

"This is a decision president-elect Obama will have to face," said former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan, who added Obama's legal advisers will probably recommend against an emailing president.

"While he has pledged an open and transparent government, I doubt the president-elect is interested in subjecting his own personal communications to that standard," McClellan wrote in an email interview. He added: "He will have to think very hard about whether he wants to make his own words that subject to open records by having his own email and his own BlackBerry."

There is presidential precedent for an email blackout. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton didn't email while in office.

"It's all discoverable; it creates a trail that might end up in congressional investigators' hands," said Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry.

If you want to delete White House email, you get a stern warning about archiving presidential records, he said.

A few days before Bush took office in 2001, he sent an email to a few dozen close friends saying he would no longer use email: "Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me."

Bush was unhappy about losing his email and mostly used the phone to talk with friends, McClellan wrote, adding: "I am sure the president looks forward to being able to communicate with them via email again come Jan. 20, 2009."

The Bush White House has been battling courts about lapses in email archives at the White House.

Before 2001, Bush was an active emailer but that was before the now ubiquitous BlackBerry with email and text-message functions was released in 2002. Users who constantly check their devices often call themselves crackberry addicts. A Canadian government agency asked its workers to live by a "BlackBerry blackout" on nights and weekends "in order to achieve work/life quality here."

"I think Obama is the first president who is addicted to the BlackBerry like the rest of us and there's a lot of presidential records and archive rules on what gets stored and what doesn't," said former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart.

Quitting BlackBerry use is not something some political types - such as McClellan - or tech-geeks like thinking about. Benjamin Nugent, author of the book "American Nerd," said the president-elect is such a techie and has nerd qualities. So cutting off the BlackBerry could be painful. It'll be interesting if we could see the torment on his face. For me it would be hell."

But it actually could be good for the president-elect, said psychology professor Lawrence Welkowitz of Keene State University in New Hampshire. "It might be a completely freeing thing for him, so that he can free himself to think and act," said Welkowitz, who doesn't carry a BlackBerry.

But even if Obama isn't packing a BlackBerry or cellphone, he'll have plenty of aides within arm's reach who do, experts said. Often a president uses the equipment of personal assistants.

And there is the chance Obama may buck the past and keep his BlackBerry tethered to his belt.

"He's the president," McCurry said. "If he wants to carry the BlackBerry, he's entitled."

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