Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama fights to hold on to his Blackberry while Senator Gordon raves about his Nokia E90

It's just about two days before President Elect Barack Obama takes over from President George W. Bush and even in the Philippines, most of the people I know are anticipating the live coverage.

Just about everything about Obama right now draws attention, if only to provide an inkling of what kind of Presidency the United States will be having. On one hand, some reports say that Obama will be facing a 'perfect storm of crises' when he steps in as President. Then there are news items that make the President Elect a bit more endearing, such as a report that says he is fighting to keep his personal Blackberry.

Here's an excerpt from a report on the Philippine Daily Inquirer's site:

Interviewed by CNN Friday, Obama said the smartphone was among the tools that he would use to stay in touch with real Americans and avoid becoming trapped inside the presidential "bubble."

"I think we're going to be able to hang on to one of these. My working assumption, and this is not new, is that anything I write on an email could end up being on CNN," he said.

Why is this a big deal?

Perhaps not a lot of Filipinos are aware of the implications of the Watergate Scandal which caused President Nixon to resign. One of the implications or results of this controversy was that it prompted the creation of a law that requires that records be kept of every communication made by the White House -- including those of the President.

Here's another excerpt from that report:

Obama did not divulge just how he will overcome legal constraints, given the requirement of the post-Watergate Presidential Records Act of 1978 to keep a record of every White House communication.

A page from describes the Watergate Presidential Records Act of 1978:
The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, 44 U.S.C. ß2201-2207, governs the official records of Presidents and Vice Presidents created or received after January 20, 1981.

The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public, and established a new statutory structure under which Presidents must manage their records.

Specifically, the Presidential Records Act:
  • Defines and states public ownership of the records.Places the responsibility for the custody and management of incumbent Presidential records with the President.
  • Allows the incumbent President to dispose of records that no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value, once he has obtained the views of the Archivist of the United States on the proposed disposal.
  • Requires that the President and his staff take all practical steps to file personal records separately from Presidential records.Establishes a process for restriction and public access to these records.
  • Specifically, the PRA allows for public access to Presidential records through the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) beginning five years after the end of the Administration, but allows the President to invoke as many as six specific restrictions to public access for up to twelve years.
  • The PRA also establishes procedures for Congress, courts, and subsequent Administrations to obtain special access to records that remain closed to the public, following a thirty-day notice period to the former and current Presidents.
  • Requires that Vice-Presidential records are to be treated in the same way as Presidential records. Amendments Executive Order 12667
Our own experience with the so-called Gloria-gate or the 'Hello Garci' controversy has not produced similar legislation or even caused Philippine media organizations to push strongly for a Freedom of Information Act.

The Hello Garci controversy stems from a taped conversation between a woman who sounded very much like President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and a man whom she referred to as Garci (gar-see) whom others said was a shorted version or nick name for Comelec official Garcillano.

The illegally taped cellphone call purportedly between the President and the Comelec Official happened at a time when the 2004 election votes across the country were being counted. One exchange in that conversation had the woman asking for assurance that she would win by a margin of 1 million votes. If it was President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, then it would have been proof -- inadmissable as it may have been -- that she had led the whole sale manipulation of votes that eventually led her to win over contender Fernando Poe Jr. by a margin of 1 million votes.

All the Filipino people can show for it is a message from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo saying 'I AM SORRY' which sounded insincere and rehearsed. Moreover, she was not definite about what she was saying sorry for and could not therefore, make any commitment to perform amends for it. There was no contrition on her part.

After the Hello Garci controversy, the Senators who investigated it should have speedily drafted a law that would require the President (and even those in her family, including First Gentleman Mike Arroyo) to keep records of every phone conversation and all manner of communication she makes.

Perhaps, in so doing, we could have prevented another scandal -- the NBN ZTE deal. Or at least, would have evidence that would lead to the conviction of economic plunderers.

Going back to Obama's Inauguration, the masa (masses) or at least a larger number of them, will probably wonder what the big fuss is all about but certainly the crowd (politicians, their staff, and reporters) at the Philippine Senate will either be leaving early from work or staying on over to catch the live coverage on cable.

I just saw HBO Asia's ad announcing that it will be showing Obama's Inauguration at 7:30 PM on January 21. My wife and I have already marked it down on our calendars.

I don't know if my boss, Senator Richard Gordon, will be able to hold everything off to watch the tube for about an hour or more. The Senate will be in session this week, apart from that there is still more work at the Blue Ribbon Committee where he is hearing the case of the P732 Million Fertilizer Fund Scam and then there is the case of the 3 abducted workers of the International Committee of the Red Cross. (It is just simply amazing just how much work he can pile on his shoulders and still make time for other engagements.)

One more comparison I'd like to make between Gordon and Obama is that both people are connected to their constituents through technology. He is actually one of the very, very few public officials you can send a text message to or even call in the middle of the night if you are in trouble.

Being directly in touch with your Senator is a great thing.

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