I’m still working on the same writing assignment that sparked the recent discussion about provenance, and was reminded of a classic example of the value of context. A quick question on Twitter helped verify some the details I had forgotten. Some people seemed familiar with it and others didn’t so I thought it might make a useful blog post.
My recollection of the events from my classes with David Wallace at the University of Michigan were confirmed by this story from the New York Times site. This goes back to the days of the Iran-Contra hearings. In these hearings email from the PROFS system (the preservation of which was the subject of a famous lawsuit) was used as evidence against John Poindexter. As described in the NYT article, of particular interest was one email that simply said “well done.” Taken in context, this message was confirmation that Poindexter knew and approved of the actions Oliver North had taken to mislead a House Intelligence Committee. Taken out of context, it could mean anything.
I asked on Twitter if this really was an issue of the importance of the archival/records context or just historical context. In other words, if you knew the people involved, the timeline of what took place, and the timestamp of the email, wouldn’t you know what it referred to? After reflection, I think that is not the case. Perhaps someone with more knowledge of the PROFS system can correct me, but I believe that in these older systems messages were not threaded as they are now. (Correct?) So without being able to prove definitively that Poindexter was responding to a message with summary of North’s actions, you could not say with certainty what the “well done” referred to. In other words, without the context of the records in the conversation there is no evidence.
I’m sure some of the people reading this know more about the case than I do, so please correct my errors and share more detail. I was also looking for a good short summary of the records issues involved here, so if anyone knows of any useful sources for more information, please share them.