Do All Presidential Briefings Get Videotaped?

Cameras, conferences, and Clinton’s coffees.

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The governor of Louisiana didn’t know that the levees in New Orleans had been breached until hours after the fact, according to a videotape of a government disaster briefing released by the Associated Press on Thursday. Another taped briefing from the day before Hurricane Katrina hit shows officials warning President Bush that the levees might be overrun in the face of “a bad one, a big one.” Do all these closed-door meetings get videotaped?

A fair number do. The White House Communications Agency sends military cameramen to sit with the press pool and tape the president’s public appearances, and these guys also get access to certain private meetings. But the recordings of the Katrina disaster briefings probably didn’t come from this mobile news team. Long-distance briefings are generally conducted via secure video teleconference, and participants communicate by speaking into cameras. The Department of Homeland Security says it has tapes of at least the “v-tels” in question.

The WHCA videographers rarely get much attention. According to the White House Web site, the cameramen tape “presidential movements” and “make video recordings for the White House and staff.” (The agency also provides communications support for the president and his aides at the White House and on the road.) This practice has been going on for quite some time: The agency got its start back in 1942.

Jimmy Carter was one president captured on camera: The A/V collection at the Carter Library includes WHCA recordings of presidential speech rehearsals, White House briefings, and Senate hearings. The Reagan Library has 6,556 items from the “White House Television Office,” including tapes of Oval Office visits, meetings overseas, and bill signings. Recordings typically covered only the first few minutes of each meeting, and the audio quality was very poor. (The team used remote microphones located a fair distance from the speakers.) One tape even shows the president preparing for the invasion of Grenada in his Cabinet room.

Despite decades of busy work, few people had heard about the WHCA camera team until it turned up at the center of the Clinton “coffees” campaign-finance scandal in 1997. The president had invited campaign donors to pay for the privilege of attending coffee meetings with him at the White House, and Senate investigators soon discovered that the WHCA camera crew had recorded them. The White House stonewalled and avoided releasing the tapes for months. When the 44 recordings were finally made public, the Senate called in members of the WHCA team to testify about their work.

According to one of these witnesses—a cameraman and chief petty officer named Charles McGrath—the WHCA team would get a look at the president’s schedule every morning at 9. Then they’d get in touch with a presidential aide who would confirm for them which events they should record and which ones they shouldn’t. After shooting the tapes, they’d label them, enter them into a database, and ship them off to the National Archives.

The quality of the coffee tapes didn’t impress members of the media. A contemporary AP report said the work of McGrath and his colleagues looked “more like home movies than TV news shows.” Like the Reagan tapes, these typically lasted only for the first few minutes of each meeting. “Faces are blurry,” the article says. “There are shots of the backs of people’s heads, their ears, shoulders and jowls. Zoom shots of faces, in and out of focus, are followed by close-ups of a chandelier or wall painting.”

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Explainer thanks Steve Branch of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, John Dickerson of Slate, and Timothy Naftali of the University of Virginia.