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Changes in White House documents raise concern about rewriting history


Craig Chamberlain, Social Science Editor

Althaus and Leetaru
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Scott Althaus, a professor of political science and of communication, right, and Kalev Leetaru, coordinator of research in the Cline Center for Democracy, show how ever-changing versions of several White House news releases have spread a distorted historical record on the Web. They hold five deleted or revised documents listing the “Coalition of the Willing” from the Iraq invasion, and are surrounded by pages from more than 50 sites that contain versions of the list.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There were 45 nations in the “Coalition of the Willing” when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Or 46 or 48 or 49.

The number depends on which version of key White House news releases you read.

Different versions of three releases all appear to be the originals. But the words are different and so are the facts, depending on when, over a period of several years, you accessed the releases on the White House Web site.

And in the case of two releases, the original document is simply missing from the site.

The Bush White House has been rewriting part of its history, according to University of Illinois researchers Scott Althaus (ALL’-touse) and Kalev Leetaru (KAHL’-iv lee-TAR-oo). It “has quietly deleted or modified key documents in the public record that are maintained under its direct control,” they write, in a report posted online this week and cited in a story in The New York Times.

Their detailed evidence focuses on five releases. They have not yet looked for changes to other documents on the White House Web site, and do not know why the changes were made. (Was it sloppy work by webmasters? Or were there political motives?)

But the evidence still leads them to “the troubling conclusion that major changes to the public record of the United States were not isolated events,” Althaus and Leetaru write. They are the first to show a pattern of changes in documents over time, but note that others have, on previous occasions, pointed to suspicious changes to archived documents on the White House Web site.

They are concerned enough about the potential implications – for the historical record, future scholarship and the interest of the American public – that they are suggesting others do their own online research over the next two months. Their report even includes instructions on how to do it.

Come Jan. 20 and a new administration, the current White House site could be removed from public view and not surface again for decades, they said. Even then, archivists may have the only access.

Althaus is a professor of political science and of communication at Illinois, as well as a faculty affiliate of the university’s Cline Center for  Democracy, which has posted the report. Leetaru is the center’s coordinator of information technology and research. He also is affiliated with the U. of I.’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Science.

Information is often malleable and ever-changing on the Web, especially on pages understood to be informational, and the researchers said they realize that can make their concerns seem overblown.

They argue, however, that “updating lists to keep up with the times is one thing. Deleting original documents from the White House archives is another. Back-dating later documents and using them to replace the originals goes beyond irresponsible stewardship of the public record. It is rewriting history.”

They also note that though they are the first to document these revisions in archived news releases, they are not the first to note “unusual content changes” on the White House Web site. In one case, following the vice-presidential debate of Oct. 5, 2004, between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, and a contentious exchange during that debate about coalition casualties, several news reports noted the disappearance of the coalition list from the White House site. (When the document was later returned to the site, Althaus and Leetaru discovered, it was backdated a year earlier, with one country missing.)

Althaus said he discovered the problem by accident. A proofreader checking an article of which Althaus was a co-author discovered that a previously recorded Web address to one of the archived news releases now led to a blank page. Althaus confirmed that the document had been deleted, and that related White House lists of coalition countries appeared to contradict one another, even though they sometimes carried the same date.

He then showed his findings to Leetaru, an expert in online research, and Leetaru’s analysis revealed that several of the White House releases had been revised after the fact to list different numbers and names of coalition countries.

Their primary tool in that research was the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization devoted to documenting changes in the Internet. Through its Wayback Machine, the organization takes snapshots of Web content every few weeks or months, and then notes where documents have been modified or deleted.

Leetaru also did general searches of the Web using a key phrase common to White House releases containing the coalition list, and in that way found pages referring to that release on more than 50 other sites. A Wikipedia site, for example, claims to have a copy of the original release, but that release is a revised version, the researchers said. Likewise, documents found through LexisNexis do not agreed with those currently on the White House site.

Because the content of seemingly original releases was ever-changing, inaccuracies and inconsistencies have been spread throughout the Web, the researchers said.

On or off the Web, the consequences are troubling for scholarship and the future writing of history, Althaus said. “This raises the question of whether other parts of the documentary record maintained in White House archives accurately reflects the information that was produced and released in real time,” he said.

The average citizen, as well, is inclined to look at government Web sites as the authoritative source for certain factual information, Leetaru said, and this research calls that into question.

 “We’re hoping that other people hearing about our findings might go and check up on documents that may be important or interesting to them,” Althaus said. “We’d like to know what other deletions and revisions might have been made before this Web site becomes difficult or impossible to access after the presidential transition in January.”

Editor’s note: To contact Scott Althaus or Kalev Leetaru, call 217-333-8968; e-mail