Bush leaves behind a mixed technology legacy

20 Gen Bush leaves behind a mixed technology legacy

CNET News, By Declan McCullagh and Stephanie Condon, January 19, 2009
Months after being sworn in as president, George W. Bush sat down with reporters and his wife, Laura, for a technology-themed event: a relaunch of the Whitehouse.gov Web site, which previously had been rather dilapidated. Bush and his aides proudly demonstrated the new features, including photo essays, better access for the disabled, and a kids’ area with details about the First Pets. The president said the Web site would letWashington become “more accessible” and let Americans “participate in the process.” Less than two weeks later, the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked, the White House shifted to a wartime footing, and Bush never looked back. Instead of a presidency that might have become known for its technology policies–Bush was, remember, a businessman in Texas–he leaves Washington this week amid controversies involving the Iraq war, torture, wiretapping, an economic crisis and bailouts, and a doubled federal debt. The 43rd president leaves behind a technology legacy characterized less by intent than by casual neglect. Bush and (especially) Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales were adamant in their defense of warrantless wiretapping, and made it a priority of their administration. “The president has the inherent authority under the Constitution, as commander-in-chief, to engage in this kind of activity,” Gonzales said in 2005 after details became public. Yet wiretapping and its cousins such as monitoring financial transactions were the exception, not the rule. On more routine, humdrum topics, the White House seemed happy to defer to Congress or to its appointees in various federal agencies, rather than use the authority of the president to focus attention in certain tech topics–something President Bill Clinton regularly did to applause from Silicon Valley firms, whose executives would rarely turn town an invitation to the White House. That apparent neglect occasionally led to embarrassing results, such as the Bush administration acknowledging last month that it opposed a spectrum plan backed by Kevin Martin, Bush’s own appointee who heads the Federal Communications Commission. Bush’s Federal Trade Commission warned that Net neutrality regulations would be dangerous, as did the Justice Department; but the FCC went ahead anyway and now is trying to defend its actions in court. For his part, Bush has stressed that September 11, 2001, was what changed his priorities and his views. “This evening, my thoughts return to the first night I addressed you from this house–September the 11, 2001,” Bush said in his farewell address to the nation last week. “As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did.” (It may be a little too facile to attribute a near-complete policy shift to that date. There is some evidence that the National Security Agency’s wiretapping program began immediately after Bush took office in 2001; a lawsuit filed by Qwest Communications’ former chief executive says that he was approached by the NSA at that time, and another lawsuit makes similar allegations involving AT&T.) The administration’s broad claims of expansive executive power and an Iraq occupation that’s lasted longer than World War II–coupled with massive deficits and a ballooning federal bureaucracy–eventually estranged some Silicon Valley Republicans who once were Bush loyalists. Venture capitalist Tim Draper chaired three Bush fundraisers circa 2000; last year he gave the legal maximum to President-elect Barack Obama. “It’s good to have a fresh face,” Draper said in a recent interview. “At least from the press, we’ve seen about six years of fear. I’d like to see six years of opportunity and what that could do for our country, and I think that might happen with Obama.” What could, perhaps, have been a Reaganesque technology agenda founded on free market principles with an emphasis on free trade and immigration reform shifted focus to security and surveillance, especially with the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in November 2002. “The Bush administration was largely AWOL on technology policy,” said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a technology trade association that supports antitrust regulation and counts Oracle, RedHat, and Sun Microsystems as members. “It was always an afterthought.” The Bush White House got off to a strong start by revamping Whitehouse.gov and launching the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2001. Yet even with the new White House Council, the lack of technology expertise within the administration was apparent from the beginning, said Black, who is listed as giving money to Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but no Republicans. “There were only a handful of people who by and large were the administration’s technology people,” he said. “In some cases, while they were fine people, they lacked the clout to make a big difference.”