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Though Bill Clinton rode into Washington promising “change,” he has outdone both of his immediate predecessors in devising ways to frustrate the Freedom of Information Act. In March 1994, the Clinton administration reversed 40 years of legal precedent by arguing in a civil suit that the National Security Council (NSC) is not actually a government “agency,” and that its documents—paper and electronic—should therefore be exempt from disclosure laws.

Thankfully, the federal court ruled against Clinton in this suit, which was filed by the National Security Archive. The favorable ruling allowed the archive, a nonprofit research outfit, to pry loose some 4,000 classified NSC e-mail messages from the Reagan/Bush era and publish White House E-Mail: The Top Secret Computer Messages the Reagan/Bush White House Tried to Destroy (The New Press, 254 pp., $14.95, paper). This volume, edited by archive Executive Director Tom Blanton, makes an essential resource for students of those presidencies and, especially, the Iran-contra affair.

The book’s splashy packaging and whimsical tone are deceptively frivolous. The 500 e-mail messages here—authored between 1985 and ’87 by the likes of Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Robert McFarlane—show how modern White Houses function. Illustrated with period photographs of administration personnel—taken around the same time the e-mails were sent—White House E-Mail introduces readers to the people who really run the executive branch: senior and midlevel NSC staffers. These are the insiders whose “talking points” prepared Reagan and Bush for Soviet summits, adversarial press encounters, and major and minor policy decisions. Expect no great revelations, just a glimpse of what government officials tell each other when they think no one’s reading over their shoulders.

For example, neither NSC advisor McFarlane nor his successor, Poindexter, have ever publicly discussed their predecessors—Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski—so candidly: “[Kissinger’s and Brzezinski’s] motives are entirely self-serving…motivated by what they think it takes to please as much of the press/congressional/public constituency as they can as often as they can,” McFarlane reassured Poindexter in a 1986 e-mail. “….There is also a touch of envy involved for both Henry and Zbig. They like to posture about how they would have done…had they been in your shoes….[It’s] pure sophistry. Don’t let it get you down.”

White House E-Mail also provides a window on the internal debate about whether to acknowledge the death of William Buckley, the CIA man captured and killed in Lebanon. Though released hostages had already confirmed Buckley’s death to the U.S. government, NSC staffer Robert L. Earl advised his superiors against publicly admitting as much, lest they spook the Iranians involved in the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages deal. “[A]cknowledging that we think Buckley is dead,” Earl wrote, “…will signal to the press, who have been unusually responsible in not printing his CIA connection, that the ‘gloves are off’ and [that] they can freely speculated [sic] all they want about his employment, the circumstances of his death, etc. Lot’s [sic] of press on the CIA bogeyman would not be helpful in retaining the channel….How about if we tell the press that our official position remains that since we haven’t seen a body, we simply do not know?” This should effectively erase any illusions about how the NSC deals with the public and the news media.

There’s lots more, including a bonus diskette with additional documents and biographical data on key players. White House E-Mail is the first book of its kind—and, as NSC staffers are notoriously quick learners, it may well be the last.—James S. Rosen