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Airbrushing History, American Style

Scott Althaus and Kalev Leetaru
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE NOVEMBER 25, 2008
http://www.clinecenter.uiuc.edu/research/airbrushing_history/

Updates

  • June 5, 2012: No content changes made, only formatting updates.
  • September 22, 2010: Page template updated for new website, no content changes made, only formatting updates.
  • April 22, 2010: All links to White House URLs changed to George Bush Library archive.
  • November 26, 2008: See UI News Bureau Press Release.
  • November 24, 2008: See New York Times Article.

Key Findings

  • There are at least five documents taking the form of White House press releases that detail the number and names of countries in the "Coalition of the Willing" that publicly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At one time, all five of these documents were archived on the White House web site.
  • Today, only three of these five documents can still be accessed in the White House archives. One of the missing lists was removed from the White House web site at some point in late 2004, and the other was removed between late 2005 and early 2006. These two "missing" lists represent earlier and smaller lists of coalition members.
  • The text of three of these five documents was altered at some point after their initial release, even though in most cases the documents still retained their original release dates and were presented as unaltered originals. These alterations to the public record changed the apparent number of countries making up the coalition, as well as the names of countries in the coalition. Some of these alterations appear to have been made as long as two years after the document's purported release date.
  • Of the five documents, only two appear to have remained unaltered after the date of their initial release. These are the only two of the five that could be authentic originals. However, we find no evidence that either of these press releases was distributed broadly to the media through normal electronic channels.
  • Two versions of the coalition list dated March 27, 2003 can be currently accessed on the White House web site. Both claim that there were 49 countries in the coalition, but one lists only 48 by name, omitting Costa Rica. The revision history of this document shows that Costa Rica's name was removed retroactively at some point in late 2004, after the Costa Rican Supreme Court ruled that continued use of its name on the list was a violation of Costa Rica's constitution.
  • Taken together, these findings suggest a pattern of revision and removal from the public record that spans several years, from 2003 through at least 2005. Instead of issuing a series of revised lists with new dates, or maintaining an updated master list while preserving copies of the old ones, the White House removed original documents, altered them, and replaced them with backdated modifications that only appear to be originals.


AIRBRUSHING HISTORY, AMERICAN STYLE

Legacies are in the air as President Bush prepares to leave the White House. How future historians will judge the president remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: future historians won't have all the facts needed to make that judgment. One legacy at risk of being forgotten is the way the Bush White House has quietly deleted or modified key documents in the public record that are maintained under its direct control.

Remember the "Coalition of the Willing" that sided with the United States during the 2003 invasion of Iraq? If you search the White House web site today you'll find a press release dated March 27, 2003 listing 49 countries forming the coalition. A key piece of evidence in the historical record, but also a troubling one. It is an impostor.

And although there were only 45 coalition members on the eve of the Iraq invasion, later deletions and revisions to key documents make it seem that there were always 49.

The Bush White House seems to have systematically airbrushed parts of the official record regarding its own history. How extensively White House documents have been rewritten is anyone's guess, but in the case of the coalition list, the evidence is clear that extensive revision of the historical record has occurred.

Deletions of original documents are easy to spot if you know where the originals were supposed to be. But we would never know about the revision history of documents presented by the White House as originals were it not for the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization devoted to documenting the changing face of the Internet. By taking broad snapshots of Web content every few weeks or months and then noting when documents have been modified or deleted, the Internet Archive allows us to retrace the history of revisions and deletions that were made to the various documents purporting to record the official coalition list.

Modifications to the historical record by the Bush White House began in the opening days of the Iraq invasion and continued through at least the end of 2005. Many of these changes involve adding or deleting countries from the coalition list and then presenting the latest change as if it were the original list.

One of the lists issued by the White House on March 21, 2003, identified 46 countries in the coalition, including the United States. At some point between April 7 and April 29, 2003, this list was updated to add Angola and Ukraine, bringing the total number of coalition countries up to 48. But instead of issuing a new list with a new date, the White House took the unusual step of retroactively revising the original March 21 press release, without indicating that the document had been modified from its original form.

The "new" March 21st list of 48 coalition countries was still available on the White House web site as recently as August 2005, but by April 2006 its URL yielded only an empty page. Not a missing page: the document remains in the White House archive. Only its contents have been deleted. Today, no official press release mentioning fewer than 48 coalition countries appears in any publicly-searchable website maintained by the White House.

Another list of 49 coalition countries - which adds the country of Tonga to the previous list of 48 - was issued by the White House at some point on or before April 13, 2003. This list remained unchanged in the White House archive until  2004, when it was temporarily removed from public view. By November 3, 2004 the list had been restored to the archive, but with two important changes. The revised list now included only 48 countries. Costa Rica, which had objected that its original inclusion was a mistake on the part of the Bush White House, no longer appears on this revised coalition list. The revised list also carried a new publication date: March 27, 2003, more than a year and a half before the revisions were made.

At some later point, this revised and backdated list was modified once again by changing the number of coalition countries back to 49, even though the document lists only 48 by name. Two versions of what appear on first glance to be the same document now reside in the White House web archive, both dated March 27, 2003. One version claims 49 countries and names 49, including Costa Rica; the other claims 49 countries but names only 48, omitting any reference to Costa Rica.

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.

The confusion caused by these documents is so great that even popular websites like Wikipedia are now promoting this "revised" history.  Wikipedia's discussion of the coalition includes a screen capture of the March 21st, 2003 press release [2] after it had been revised to increase the number of members from 46 to 48. Since the date was not changed when the number of countries was revised, Wikipedia's entry for the document claims it is the original March 21st release.  Thus, in many ways the White House's revised version of history has already begun propagating across the Internet.

Our evidence suggests the troubling conclusion that major changes to the public record of the United States were not isolated events. We see instead a pattern of revision and removal from the public record that spans several years, from 2003 through at least 2005 in the case of the coalition lists. More troubling is that these changes were made in secret. Instead of issuing a series of revised lists with new dates, or maintaining an updated master list while preserving copies of the old ones, the White House removed original documents, altered them, and replaced them with backdated modifications that only appear to be originals.

We are not suggesting that these deletions and revisions are the result of official policy decisions by senior officials in the Bush administration. The pattern we uncovered might be evidence of a whitewashing campaign to intentionally alter the documentary record, or of inappropriate archival practices that treat electronic documents as placeholders rather than historically specific elements of the governmental record. But whether by design or neglect, the result is the same: the removals and revisions of White House documents distort the historical record of what our government has said and done.

We cannot tell how extensive was the White House effort to erase traces of recent American history. We cannot know whether changes are being made in these final weeks of the Bush administration that might forever alter the documentary trail of our nation's past. But this much is clear: Key documents for understanding American history have been quietly revised and deleted, at the hand of our own government.

If there is a silver lining, it is how difficult it has become in the digital age to remove traces of what used to be called a "paper trail". The original coalition lists were distributed so widely and stored in so many locations that changing the "originals" housed in White House archives only affects those who rely on the official records.

If the official records prove unreliable, then scholars and journalists may have an increasingly difficult time confirming the government's version of reality. One sad legacy of this outgoing administration is that it may have shifted the public burden of preserving our nation's history onto the shoulders of private citizens.


WHY SMALL CHANGES TO AN OLD LIST ARE IMPORTANT TODAY

One might ask why seemingly minor changes to a five-year-old list are so important: Why does the changing of a few countries and numbers warrant our attention? The list itself is only part of the story. Of greater concern is the extensive effort over a period of years that reshaped the historical record of the Iraq invasion, and removed from public view evidence that might be used to piece together the original facts.

Since the coalition list was originally issued more than five years ago, it is important to clarify its historical importance at the time of the Iraq invasion. Five years ago, the United States found itself facing international resistance to the idea of preemptively invading a sovereign state. By detailing the countries making up the "Coalition of the Willing," this list was an important part of the Bush administration's argument for the invasion. It suggested that there were numerous other nations supporting the American military action: not the United States acting alone, but a coalition of nations from around the globe forming together to defeat an enemy purported to threaten the world. The list of coalition members figured prominently in discussions of the invasion as it was underway. It remained an important topic throughout the early post-invasion period of the Iraq War, and was at the center of a disagreement between John Edwards and Dick Cheney during the 2004 Vice-Presidential debate. In this way, the number and names of coalition allies played an outsized role in helping to vindicate the American military action against Iraq.

The evidence in our analysis does not tell us why the White House went to such effort to modify seemingly innocuous information contained in the coalition list documents. But the extent of White House effort to alter the contents of this list suggests greater cause for concern beyond the five documents in our analysis. If so much energy was focused on reshaping the names and number of coalition countries, one can only imagine what might have been done to higher-profile or more sensitive content on the White House web site.

Our study is the first to demonstrate that the factual content of press releases was revised and backdated in ways that made the revised documents appear original. But our study is not the first to note unusual content changes to the White House web site.

  • In December 2003, the Washington Post noted that the U.S. Agency for International Development had removed from its website the transcript of an interview with its head, Andrew S. Natsios, in which he told ABC's Nightline that the total cost to the American public of the Iraq war would be only $1.7 billion. The same article noted that the headline of one of President Bush's speeches had been revised after the fact to insert "Major" into the title "President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." It also detailed a wide range of redactions and changes on other agency sites under the administration's control.
  • Eleven months later one of the coalition lists was removed from the White House website after a controversial exchange between Dick Cheney and John Edwards in the Vice-Presidential Debate on October 5, 2004. A few news reports noted the disappearance of the list (these are discussed later in our analysis) but failed to follow up when the list was finally restored to the site. Our analysis shows that the replacement list was a country lighter and backdated more than a year earlier.
  • In years since, occasional attention has been given to edits in other portions of the White House web site. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics noted late last year that during a discussion of whether the White House Office of Administration was subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the corresponding White House page was suddenly changed from saying the agency was subject to FOIA to stating that it was exempt. Unlike the lists in our analysis, the text in question came from an informational web page that did not purport to be an original document.

Until now, each of these incidents appeared to be a one-time edit or deletion. Seen in isolation, each of these incidents could have a reasonable explanation. But the pattern we find has not been noticed before, and it is much harder to explain away. We find clear evidence that the White House not only altered informational web pages, but altered important documents in the public record. The trail of edits, deletions, and backdated revisions spanned a period of at least two years. All were focused on the contents of an historically important list used by the Bush White House to vindicate its decision to invade Iraq.

In this way, our analysis is not the story of small changes to an old list. It is more importantly the story of how key facts from the historical record of the Iraq invasion were reshaped, an effort that continued for years after the invasion had ended. If the same sort of reshaping was also done to other parts of the public record maintained on the White House web site, then the scope of the problem could be much larger.

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

OVERVIEW OF REVISIONS AND DELETIONS

 

(Click on image above to enlarge)

 

INTRODUCTION

 

We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. (senior White House aide - New York Times Magazine 10/17/2004) [1]

This anonymous quotation caused an uproar when it was first reported by journalist Ron Suskind in October 2004. The context of the quotation is not entirely clear, but at the time of its publication it raised concerns about the veracity of Bush administration claims made prior to the 2003 Iraq invasion regarding of the threat posted by Iraq.

The claim of "creating other new realities" casts a different shadow in light of recently uncovered evidence questioning the authenticity of key historical documents maintained in the White House web archives. On November 6, 2008 one of this report's authors learned that the Bush White House had deleted a key public document related to the 2003 invasion of Iraq from the public record maintained on the White House web site. This discovery prompted further investigation that revealed the Bush White House had replaced key documents with backdated revisions that otherwise appear to be the authentic originals.

We offer the following report as a detailed analysis of how the Bush White House appears to have systematically deleted and revised press releases archived on White House web servers that purport to document the names and number of countries supporting the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003. The pattern of deletions and revisions spanning a period of years calls into question whether documentary evidence archived in the public record under White House control can be relied upon as an accurate record of historical events as they unfolded at the time.

At least five versions of the coalition list have existed on the White House website.  Two lists from the opening days of the war (March 20th and 21st, 2003) presented the number of coalition members as totaling 45 and 46 countries. Both documents were subsequently removed from the White House site: one page deleted entirely, the other still in existence, but with all content stripped out.  A third list, dated March 25th, still exists on the White House site, but states there are only 48 countries in the coalition, while listing 49.  Two lists are dated March 27th: one with 49 countries, and one that states there are 49 countries, but which only names 48. The missing country is Costa Rica, which appears in earlier lists as one of the original 45 members of the coalition. Our analysis will show that Costa Rica was retroactively removed from this document long after the invasion had ended.

This brief overview represents only the current status of these documents. Over the past five years there have been at least seven total revisions to them, four to one of the lists alone.  In the case of the March 21st coalition list, it was soon updated to claim 48 countries in the coalition, while retaining the original publication date.  This page was not removed from the site until sometime between August 2005 and April 2006, meaning that for several years the only known publically-accessible official White House document listing the countries in the coalition as of the launch of the invasion on March 21st contained 48 nations, two more than the 46 countries that had actually been named as coalition members on March 21st.  Our analysis will show that the nations of Angola and Ukraine were retroactively added to this document as if they had been founding members of the coalition. 

The disappearance of some key documents from the White House web site was first noticed in late October, 2004, but no sustained attention was given to following up on these disappearances: 

  • Several media outlets reported on the removal of the primary coalition list from the White House website (Document 4) and the stripping of the link to it from the coalition homepage, all occurring immediately after an exchange in a vice-presidential debate over which countries were included in the coalition. [3] [4]
  • Blogger Brad Friedman also alleged at the same time that the White House had edited and/or removed other content from its site. [5]
  • An Agence France Presse article of the time [6] quotes White House webmaster Jimmy Orr as stating "[the removal of the coalition list] is not unusual. If there is incorrect, or out of date information, we take it down.  What we're doing right now, with the entire Iraq site, is we're updating the information."  This comment about "incorrect" or "out of date" information seems to have been a reference to the Costa Rican Supreme Court's ruling in September 2004 that it was unconstitutional for Costa Rica to be included on the list of coalition members. [7]  It seems that the government of Costa Rica had never actually pledged its support for the invasion, and had been left on the list despite formally requesting to be removed from it.  Jimmy Orr is quoted in a Washington Post article as saying the coalition list of the time "was dated and inaccurate" and that a new list would be posted shortly, with Costa Rica dropped as per its request. [8]

As promised, the list (Document 4 in our analysis) was restored to the White House website shortly thereafter and Costa Rica was no longer listed as a member.  Yet, instead of giving the revised list a publication date of October 2004, a document that was deemed "outdated and inaccurate" when it had a publication date of February 4, 2004 was now post-dated more than a year into the past, incorrectly suggesting that Costa Rica never had been listed as a member of the coalition in March 2003.  The document was edited again between this point and April 2006, with the text changed to state there were 49 countries, while still keeping the list of 48 country names. 

Of particular irony, an Associated Press article from around this time [9] includes a link to the coalition list on the White House website and states that the list is dated February 4, 2004 and still includes Costa Rica as of that wire report's publication. [10] A reader following that link today finds an official White House press release dated March 27, 2003 claiming 49 countries in the coalition, but with Costa Rica struck from the list, leaving only 48 names of coalition countries.

Although the disappearance of one coalition list was briefly noted in October 2004, the real story may be much larger than anyone has realized.  What we find would be difficult to explain as the result of sloppy webmastering.  It also cannot be explained as a reaction to the vice-presidential debate, as some have argued, or a scheduled housecleaning of the site. The rewriting of the documentary history seems to have begun within days of the first lists being released.  Far from the one-time actions of an overzealous staffer, the changes we find have continued almost from the start of the invasion through at least the beginning of 2006, suggesting a long-term pattern of revising key documents in the public record.
 
At first glance, it would seem only natural that a web-based list of coalition members should be continually updated to reflect the latest additions and removals of nations from the actual coalition.  However, none of the documents examined in this study is an informational web page. They are instead White House press releases, official government documents that are date-stamped and represent the historical record of the administration, much like any other act of government.  While informational web pages are routinely edited, official press releases are traditionally archived through time, acting as a chronology of official government statements.  Yet, even edits to routinely-updated informational web pages might be expected to result in a new "Last Updated" date stamp, not a carrying-forward of the same publication date through time as new information is added and old information removed.  When information in a document is changed over time, but its publication date kept the same, the perception of history is altered: the revised document becomes the new "reality" for what the document looked like when it was first published.

One can only guess at the motives behind these changes and deletions.  We do not suggest that these changes were the result of official policy decisions or directions of senior White House officials.  No matter the cause or who was involved in the process, the end result is a rewriting of the historical record. In the case of the coalition lists, the public record maintained on the White House web site can no longer be trusted to represent the original sequence of events.

 

SOURCES FOR TRACKING CHANGES IN THE WHITE HOUSE ARCHIVE DOCUMENTS

Archive.org

This study relies heavily on the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine" service, hosted at http://www.archive.org.  The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization that has worked to archive as much of the web as possible since 1996.  Unlike Google's Cached Copy feature, which only maintains the most recent version of each page, the Internet Archive keeps a copy of every version of each page it has indexed. 

While you cannot currently search the full text of their archive, you can enter a particular URL and view every indexed version in their archive.  In essence, the Internet Archive allows one to travel back in time to the state of the web on any particular date.  However, despite having more than 85 billion pages in its index as of November 2008, the Internet Archive does not have a record of every version of every webpage.  Like any search engine, it relies on computer programs called web crawlers to continually scan the web and download the latest version of web pages it comes across.  Resource limitations mean these crawlers don't reach every web page on a regular basis, so the Internet Archive interface is designed around "snapshots" of web pages, which means that the Archive offers a list of the days it crawled a particular webpage and a link to see what it looked like on that day.  Sometimes it may crawl a page several times in one month, while other times it may be a year before it crawls a page again.  Hence, there are often irregularly-spaced gaps in its archive records for a given page. 

Since the Archive only knows the status of a web page on the days it crawls that page, it cannot be used to determine the exact day and time that a web page changed. Instead, it can be used to estimate the time range in which a change occurred.  If, for example, it has snapshots of a page on April 2nd and on June 3rd of the same year, and the page is different in the second snapshot, then we know that the change occurred sometime during that period.  The remainder of this paper relies on this process to chronicle the various versions of different White House web pages (at least those versions archived by the Internet Archive - there could be other versions that were not captured by it) and estimate the approximate date range when revisions or deletions may have occurred. For an example of how to locate potentially deleted URLs and how to search for them on the Internet Archive, see the final section of this analysis.

LexisNexis

In addition to the Internet Archive's historical snapshots of the White House web pages containing the coalition list, numerous commercial news aggregation services also archive official White House press releases.  Through the Federal Information and News Dispatch, Inc. news service, LexisNexis receives copies of press releases that are distributed electronically by the White House.   LexisNexis is a commercial news aggregation service that offers a fulltext searchable index of informational content drawn from more than 34,000 sources. 

A search of the LexisNexis archive returns only three versions of the coalition list press release. Two are dated March 20, 2003, and the third is dated March 21, 2003. No later version of the coalition list reached the LexisNexis archives, suggesting that later versions of the coalition list may have been posted directly to the White House web site without also being distributed to media organizations through routine channels.

 

THE COALITION LISTS TODAY

As of November 2008, a query for the key phrase "countries are publicly committed to the Coalition" (one of the opening lines of the original document) on the popular Google search engine (with the "filter duplicates" option turned off) yields more than 50 copies of the coalition list on a wide range of government, academic, commercial, and personal websites.  Among these results, one finds pages such as this May 27, 2004 blog posting with a purported copy of the original White House press release.  While the copy of the press release in this posting is not dated, it states that there are 47 nations in the coalition, but the subsequent list contains only 46, with both Spain and Tonga missing.  While Tonga was a late addition to the list, Spain was present from the beginning (as seen later in this study, Spain was never removed from any of the Internet Archive's snapshots of the White House press release pages, and Ukraine was not present in the first press releases).  Other pages contain varying numbers of coalition members, from 45 to 49, mirroring the various versions of the list as it evolved through time.  Some of these lists contain information on which White House URLs they were taken from and when, while others are simply cut-and-paste copies of the list itself.

With such a wide range of pages and conflicting versions of the list, the likely reaction by many searchers is to turn to one of the first two search results, both of which are White House web pages.  After all, intuition would suggest that an official government document hosted on the web site of the government agency that produced it would be the most authentic version of the document, as opposed to a copy that has been pasted into someone's personal website, especially if there are discrepancies between the two. 

Using Google's domain search feature, we searched for all pages hosted under "whitehouse.gov" that contained the phrase "countries are publicly committed to the Coalition".  This resulted in five URLs (in the order they appear in the Google Search results):

The fourth URL above is the "printer friendly" version of the second URL, so for the purposes of this study they are considered as a single page (though the detailed analysis later in this paper traces their separate chronologies).  The fifth URL in the list above has no previous snapshots in the Internet Archive, so its history is unknown.  In its present form, it is dated March 27, 2003, states that there are 49 countries in the coalition, and lists all 49 nations.  Since its current form does not contain any known inaccuracies and its past history cannot be traced, it is not examined further in this study. 

In addition, we found two other URLs, one that one of this report's authors had cited in a previous paper, and one that had been linked to by several websites before it was taken down.  Those two URLs are:

These seven different URLs on the White House website have each hosted versions of the coalition list. One of the difficulties we encountered is that at least two of these URLs lead to blank or "page not found" errors, meaning they no longer appear in web searches. We discovered them only through earlier references that pointed to them when they were still active.  It is more than likely that additional copies of the list may have existed on the White House website at various times, but if so, they have also been removed, as queries on search engines like Google no longer return them.  Unfortunately, as noted earlier, Archive.org does not permit keyword searching of its collections, and so we are unable to efficiently search the entire holdings of that archive to retrieve every version of the coalition list that might be stored there.


Revisions and Deletions to the Various Coalition Lists

As this study will show, while the URL of each press release appears to contain its publication date, this information cannot be relied upon.  Since several of the pages studied here have undergone multiple revisions, including post-dating, none of the information currently contained in them can be relied upon to verify their original publication date.  Hence, for the purposes of this study, the documents are ordered by the first snapshot the Internet Archive has of each, since that is the only date we can definitively rely upon to know that the page existed in a particular form on a particular day. 

We therefore find the following list of five documents on the White House website that have contained the coalition list:

The table below briefly summarizes the history of these five documents:

Table 1 - Brief summary of the five White House coalition lists
Document First Snapshot Last Known Edit # Modifications Since Original Beginning Status Current Status
1 March 29, 2003 October 12, 2004 to present 1 Dated March 20, 2003, contained list of 45 nations. "Page Not Found" Error.
2 April 7, 2003   Between August 19, 2005 and April 27, 2006     2 Dated March 21, 2003, contained list of 46 nations. Blank Page.
3 April 13, 2003   April 13, 2003 0 Dated March 25, 2003, states there are 48 countries, but includes full list of 49. Unchanged.
4 April 17, 2003     Between November 3, 2004 and April 22, 2006     4 Dated April 3, 2003, lists all 49 nations. Dated March 27, 2003, states there are 49 members, but contains only 48 (Costa Rica is missing).
5 June 13, 2003     June 13, 2003   0 Dated March 27, 2003, contains all 49 members. Unchanged.


Document 1

The LexisNexis archive contains the initial version of this March 20, 2003 press release, which is one of the earliest official copies of the coalition list that we have been able to locate. LexisNexis also archives a second release from March 20, 2003 (time stamped at 5:00pm), that lists "more than 44 countries" in the coalition. Comparing the two lists archived on LexisNexis suggests that at some point between 5:00pm and midnight, Costa Rica and Palau were added to the official coalition list, while Angola was removed.

The later version of Document 1 archived on LexisNexis and dated March 20, 2003 states there were 45 countries in the coalition. The Internet Archive's first snapshot of this document is from March 29, 2003.  Nearly a week after its original release, it still carried a publication date of March 20, 2003, but now stated that there were 46 nations in the coalition instead of 45.  The original Nexis version of this document that was released on March 20 omits Panama, suggesting that Panama may have been retroactively added to this list sometime between its release on March 20th and the March 29th snapshot.  Compared to the final list of 49 nations, this revised list of 46 countries excluded Angola, Tonga, and Ukraine.  The document remained unchanged through the Archive's last snapshot on October 12, 2004.  Sometime between this point and present day, the document was removed from the White House website.  Attempts to access it today result in a "page not found" error. 

Browse the complete Internet Archive snapshot history of this document.

Document 2

The Internet Archive's first snapshot of the print-friendly version of this URL is from April 7, 2003, in which the document is dated March 21, 2003. At this time, the document stated there were 46 countries, and listed 46 by name.  The countries from the final 49 that were not on this list are Angola, Tonga, and Ukraine.  By the Archive's April 29, 2003 snapshot of the main version of the page, it still carried a March 21, 2003 release date, but now stated there were 48 countries in the coalition, with Tonga being the missing country.

The main page remained unchanged through the Archive's November 25, 2004 snapshot and was accessed by one of the authors of this report on August 19, 2005.  Sometime between this point and the next available Archive snapshot of April 27, 2006, the content was removed from the site.  Of interest, however, is that the page was not actually deleted from the site (which would result in a "page not found" error). Instead, the text of the release was simply edited out of the page, resulting in a blank white page (same for the print-friendly version).  Given earlier White House statements that old content was simply being deleted, it would seem odd to go through the trouble of editing a page to clear out its contents, rather than simply deleting it entirely. 

Browse the complete Internet Archive snapshot history of the main document and the snapshot history of the print-friendly version.

Document 3

The Internet Archive's first snapshot of this document is from April 13, 2003.  In this snapshot, it carried a publication date of March 25, 2003 and stated there were 48 countries in the coalition. However, the list of coalition members contains the names of 49.  Since it does not appear to have been revised, this is one of two versions of the coalition list that may be an authentic original (the other is Document 5). However, no version of this document was found in a search of the LexisNexis archive, suggesting that it was never broadly distributed by the White House. The document remains unchanged through the present day

Browse the complete Internet Archive snapshot history of this document.

Document 4

From soon after the start of the Iraq invasion until it was temporarily taken down in the fall of 2004, Document 4 was the primary version of the coalition list that people were directed to access from the White House's "In Focus: Iraq" web page.

Searches on Google currently return two URLs for this document: the primary web page and its "printer friendly" version:

White House press release URLs name each document using a numeric string containing the date of publication in YYYYMMD (4-digit year, 2-digit month, day) format followed by a dash, and a number that is incremented sequentially for all of the releases issued that day (the first press release of March 27, 2003 would be named "20030327-1.html", while the second would be named "20030327-2.html", and so on).  In the case of this document, the date suggests that it was the 10th release on March 27, 2003, but this cannot be verified since no Internet Arhive snapshots were taken of this document before mid-April. 

The Internet Archive's first snapshot of the primary page is from April 17, 2003.  At this point the document was dated April 3, 2003, stated there were 49 members of the coalition, and contained a list of all 49 nations, including Costa Rica.  Aside from having a different release date, in this snapshot it appears identical to Document 5. The URLs of these documents suggest that at one time Documents 4 and 5 may have been copies of the same press release.

The Archive shows no change in Document 4 from this snapshot through its February 2, 2004 snapshot.  Sometime between then and June 7, 2004, the document was changed to have a new publication date of February 4, 2004, but the stated number and list of coalition members was left unchanged.  The printer-friendly version of the page shows the same February 4, 2004 publication date in the Archive's April 17, 2004 snapshot, suggesting the date change occurred sometime between February 2, 2004 and April 17, 2004.

This updated page remained as-is through the Archive's September 13, 2004 snapshot.  (Indeed, an Associated Press article on September 9, 2004 cites the URL for this page). [11]   Sometime between then and October 11, 2004, the list was removed from the White House website, resulting in a "File Not Found" error.

By the Archive's next snapshot of the printer-friendly version of the page, from November 3, 2004, the page had been restored, only now it carried a publication date of March 27, 2003, stated there were 48 members of the coalition, and listed 48, with Costa Rica absent.  As noted earlier, this occurred around the time in October 2004 when the White House removed a number of coalition-related content items and promised to replace the coalition list with an updated list that no longer included Costa Rica's name.  However, rather than post a new list with a current date, the White House back-dated a revised list to make it appear that it had been issued on March 27, 2003. With Costa Rica's name removed, the page misleadingly suggests that Costa Rica had never been listed as a coalition member at the time of the invasion.

By the Archive's April 22, 2006 snapshot the main page had been updated once more, this time to increase the stated number of nations to 49, while retaining the same list of 48 that omitted Costa Rica.  The list has not changed from this point through the present day, with the current list on the White House website still dated March 27, 2003, stating there are 49 nations, but naming only 48 and omitting Costa Rica. 

Browse the complete Internet Archive snapshot history of the main and printer-friendly versions of this document.

Document 5

Document 5 is the only version of the coalition list that people are directed to access today from the White House web site's search engine.

The Internet Archive's first snapshot of this document is from June 18, 2003, where it is dated March 27, 2003, states there are 49 coalition members, and lists 49 countries.  The document remains unchanged from this version (the Internet Archive reports nine subsequent changes, but those appear to only be to the template of the page, and the content of the document remains unchanged during these revisions). Since it does not appear to have been revised, this is one of two versions of the coalition list that may be an authentic original (the other is Document 3). However, no version of this document was found in a search of the LexisNexis archive, suggesting that it was never broadly distributed by the White House.  

As noted above, aside from having a different release date, Document 5 appears identical to the earliest snapshot of Document 4. The URLs of these documents suggest that at one time Documents 4 and 5 may have been copies of the same press release.

Browse the complete Internet Archive snapshot history of this document.

TIMELINE OF REVISIONS AND DELETIONS

Table 2: Timeline of Revisions and Deletions to the Set of Coalition Lists
Date Update Countries Changed
March 20, 2003 Document 1: List of 45 coalition member nations released by White House, dated March 20, 2003.  Of the 49 eventual countries,  Angola, Tonga, Panama, and Ukraine are missing.  Original archived by LexisNexis.  Afghanistan
Albania
Australia
Azerbaijan
Bulgaria
Colombia
Costa Rica
Czech Republic
Denmark
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Eritrea
Estonia
Ethiopia
Georgia
Honduras
Hungary
Iceland
Italy
Japan
Kuwait
Latvia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Marshall Islands
Micronesia
Mongolia
Netherlands
Nicaragua
Palau
Philippines
Poland
Portugal
Romania
Rwanda
Singapore
Slovakia
Solomon Islands
South Korea
Spain
Turkey
Uganda
United Kingdom
United States
Uzbekistan
March 21, 2003 Document 2: List of 46 coalition member nations released by White House, dated March 21, 2003.  Posted on the White House website (view).  Of the 49 eventual countries,  Angola, Tonga, and Ukraine are missing. Original is archived by LexisNexis. Panama added.
Sometime prior to March 29, 2003     Document 1: List posted to White House website, has March 20, 2003 date, but now lists 46 countries, adding Panama to the original (view). Panama added.
Sometime between April 7, 2003 and April 29, 2003 Document 2: Instead of issuing new list, original press release from March 21 is changed to state there are 48 members of the coalition (view).  Angola and Ukraine are added to the list, but Tonga is still missing.  Release date of March 21, 2003 is kept unchanged. Angola and Ukraine added.
Sometime prior to April 13, 2003   Document 3: A new list of coalition members is released with a date of March 25, 2003 (view) and states there are 48 members of the coalition, but lists all 49 nations. Tonga added.
Sometime prior to April 17, 2003 Document 4: A new list is released with a URL suggesting an original issue date of March 27, 2003, even though it is dated April 3, 2003 in its first snapshot (view). It lists 49 countries in the coalition.  
Sometime prior to April 17, 2003 White House Coalition homepage is released (view) with prominent link to Document 4.  
Sometime prior to June 18, 2003 Document 5: List dated March 27, 2003 is posted to White House website (view) with list of 49 coalition members.  Page remains unchanged to the present.  
Sometime between December 16, 2003 and February 7, 2004 White House Coalition homepage is redesigned to its current version, but the link to coalition members is retained in a prominent position and moved to the upper-right "Documents" box. (view)  
Sometime between February 2, 2004 and April 17, 2004     Document 4 is changed to have a new date of February 4, 2004 (view), but list and count of countries remains unchanged.  
Sometime between September 13, 2004 and October 11, 2004 Document 4 is deleted from White House website. (view)  
Sometime between October 11, 2004 and November 3, 2004   Document 4 is restored to White House website (view), but has been post-dated to March 27, 2003 and lists only 48 nations, with Costa Rica having been dropped. Costa Rica dropped.
Sometime between October 12, 2004 and the present Document 1 is deleted from White House website. Attempts to call the page up today results in "page not found" error. (view)  
Sometime between October 13, 2004 and October 25, 2004 White House Coalition homepage is changed to comment out the hotlink that leads to the list of coalition members. (view)  
Sometime between November 3, 2004 and April 22, 2006 Document 4 is changed to state there are 49 members of the coalition (view), but the actual list of countries remains at 48 (Costa Rica is missing).  
Sometime between August 19, 2005 and April 27, 2006 Document 2 is blanked out (view).  Page is not removed from site, but list is edited out, leaving blank white page.  

 

 

THE WHITE HOUSE SEARCH ENGINE

In addition to tracing the documentary history of each of the coalition lists, we found that searches made on the White House web site return links for only one of the five relevant documents. Notably, the White House search engine directs queries to Document 5, one of two lists that may be an authentic original. A search on the White House website for "coalition members" yields three search results:

First White House Search Result

The first URL is Document 5, dated March 27th, stating that there are 49 members and naming all 49 countries.  This is the only list that is returned using the White House search engine, meaning that earlier versions of the list, such as the one dated March 25, are not accessible.  Searchers would have to know of the existence of the earlier documents and specifically search for them to find those lists. To the casual searcher, March 27th is the earliest (and only) list available, masking the fact that the list of countries was smaller at the outset of the invasion.

Second White House Search Result

The second URL of the White House search results includes a prominent link at the bottom under "Archived Features" titled "The Coalition", but the link only points back to the same page.  Yet, the most interesting aspect of this page lies not in what is visible, but what lies beneath the page, hidden in its HTML code.  At the top right of the page is a highly visible "Documents" section that offers two links, one to "Statements of Support from Coalition Members", and one to "'The Coalition' an Op-Ed from Dr. Condoleezza Rice".  Upon viewing the HTML source code of this page, however, one finds there was once a third link in that section, appearing first, titled "Who are the Coalition members?" and linking to Document 4.  Instead of being removed from the site, this link has simply been commented out in the HTML source, meaning that the browser will no longer display it.

Of immediate interest, then, is determining when exactly this link was removed from the page.  Archive.org's first snapshot of the page is dated April 17, 2003 and contains a prominent link to this coalition list.  Sometime between December 16, 2003 and February 7, 2004, the page was redesigned into its current look, at which point this link was still displayed as part of the Documents box, indicating that it was not dropped simply as part of a site redesign.  Indeed, the link was still part of the page in the Internet Archive's October 13, 2004 snapshot.  However, sometime over the next 12 days the link was removed, as the link is no longer visible in the October 25, 2004 snapshot (by this point it has been commented out in the HTML code, as it is in the current version).

In looking to the press of the time, several outlets reported on the striking of this link, which occurred around the time that Document 4 was first removed from the White House website. [12] [13] [14] In the aftermath of this coverage, when Document 4 was finally put back on the web, this link was never restored even though the Coalition homepage continued to be prominently featured in the White House web site.

Third White House Search Result

The third URL is an archive of Iraq-related press releases from the White House.  The current version of the page includes a link under its March 27, 2003 section to Document 5, the coalition members list dated March 27, 2003.



HOW TO IDENTIFY URLS THAT MAY HAVE BEEN DELETED FROM THE WHITE HOUSE WEB SITE

The standard URL sequencing used by the White House for releasing public documents appears to be organized by date. For each date, the name of the web page begins with a numeric string containing the date of publication in YYYYMMD (4-digit year, 2-digit month, day) format followed by a dash, and a number that is incremented sequentially for all of the releases issued that day. Thus, the first document released each day has a URL that typically ends in "-1", the second ends in "-2", and so on in sequential order. Our method for unearthing potentially deleted web pages uses this standard sequencing to (1) identify which URLs are currently displayed in White House news release lists, (2) interpolate the "missing" URLs of documents that should have been part of the original URL sequence but are no longer displayed, (3) searching the White House web pages for those "missing" URLs to determine if the URLs still return valid documents; and (4) searching for the "missing" URLs on the Internet Archive to see if these pages were ever captured by the "Wayback Machine."

This method can be illustrated with March 20, 2003 as an example. Going to the news release page for the month of March 2003 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/) and scrolling down to March 20 reveals nine documents shown for this date (one of them includes sublinks to audio and video files of the President's meeting with the cabinet, but we ignore those sublinks to focus on the number of primary documents).

Holding a mouse pointer over each of these nine documents and looking at the status bar along the bottom of the browser window reveals its URL (on some browsers you may need to click on the link to open that page and then look at the URL displayed in the URL bar at the top of the browser window). Copying each URL to a word processor or spreadsheet allows them to be sorted in order from first to last in sequence. For instance, the URLs for the nine documents displayed under March 20, 2003 are as follows:

Ordering the URLs in this way draws attention to gaps in the sequencing for this day's releases. For instance, the news release page currently omits any link to what should have been the first document of the day:

Filling the gaps between the currently displayed URLs produces the following list of 10 URLs that should have been valid on March 20, 2003 but are no longer displayed as hotlinks for that day:

Following each of these 10 links reveals that three still access valid documents maintained on the White House web site:

Following the other seven interpolated URLs results in "file not found" errors from the White House web server:

Having identified seven "missing" URLs that no longer return valid documents, we can now search for the page histories of these URLs on the Internet Archive's "Wayback Machine." This analysis reveals that one of these URLs used to contain Document 1 in our analysis (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030320-11.html). The other six URLS were never captured by the Internet Archive and therefore have no archived page histories. This could happen for any of three reasons: (1) the URL was never valid; (2) the URL was valid at one time but was never part of the formal link structure in the White House web pages and was never linked to from outside the White House web pages (unlinked URLs would not be captured by the Internet Archive's web crawlers because they are designed to follow hotlinks rather than systematically dig for hidden pages); or (3) the URL was valid and linked at one time but was removed at some point before an Internet Archive web crawler encountered the linking page.

In summary, this method of interpolating missing URLs suggests that there could have been at least 19 URLs containing news released by the White House on March 20, 2003. Of these 19 possible URLs, seven are no longer found on the White House web server, suggesting that potentially more than a third of URLs originally released on this date might have been subsequently removed. Only one of these seven URLs has a snapshot history on Internet Archive, and it is Document 1 from our analysis: one of the earliest coalition lists issued by the White House.



REFERENCES

  1. Iraq coalition vanishes from White House website.  (2004, October 22).  Agence France Presse.
  2. Iraq coalition vanishes from White House website.  (2004, October 22).  Agence France Presse.
  3. Jimenez, Marianela.  Costa Rica's highest court demands country be taken off list of U.S. 'coalition' members in Iraq.  International News Section.  The Associated Press.
  4. Jimenez, Marianela.  Costa Rica's highest court demands country be taken off list of U.S. 'coalition' members in Iraq.  International News Section.  The Associated Press.
  5. A GlobalSecurity.org page (Accessed November 10, 2008) notes that one of the March 27, 2003 coalition lists was updated to change the publication date to February 4, 2004, but the list itself was not changed. The page also notes that Costa Rica was still part of this coalition list even after its Supreme Court had ruled that it must be removed from the list.
  6. Jimenez, Marianela.  Costa Rica's highest court demands country be taken off list of U.S. 'coalition' members in Iraq.  International News Section.  The Associated Press.
  7. Iraq coalition vanishes from White House website.  (2004, October 22).  Agence France Presse.