PRESIDENTS Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton may not have agreed on every policy issue, but one matter united them. All three administrations fought a long legal battle to keep the public from casting its eye over White House messages that even the most classified document cannot beat for sensitivity: e-mail. The Internet is rapidly turning e-mail into the fad of the decade, as the media hypes it up into a cyber-cliche. But while it is now all about talking to strangers on other continents, in the mid-1980s e-mail was largely about inter-office chat. This was when the White House set up an e-mail system and, as history would have it, some of its most vociferous supporters - such as national security adviser John Poindexter and staffer Oliver North - turned out to be key players in the Reagan administration's most infamous episodes, including the Iran-Contra scandal. Office gossips in buildings far more prosaic than the seat of the United States Government never expect their electronic musings to reach anyone else's eyes, let alone be recorded for posterity. This probably included such characters as North, who nevertheless tried to delete all his e-mail as surely as his secretary Fawn Hall made busy with the shredder. But like anywhere else, White House e-mail was recorded on backup tapes, and it is this store which a freedom of information pressure group, the National Security Archive, has fought for years to be made public. Mr Reagan tried to designate the tapes as 'non-records' and have them destroyed; Mr Bush then tried four years later to take them with him into retirement in Texas; and Mr Clinton attempted to keep them out of the public domain by declaring them privileged. But the archive group prevailed in court and the fruits of their labour is a juicy new book which prints the cream of the messages from 6,000 computer tapes. It is not hard to see why three administrations wanted these messages to stay classified. By their very nature, e-mail messages are more candid and reveal more about behind-the-scenes politicking than a hundred 'official' documents designed for public consumption. The book's pages throw light on the darkest shadows of the corridors of power, calling into question just how democratic even the world's most open democracy can truly be. Voyeuristic readers are drawn immediately to the bitchiness and back-stabbing nature of the protagonists. Such as when one staffer, in 1986 (and long before Ross Perot had presidential ambitions) commented on the millionaire's bid to get Vietnam to move on soldiers missing in action: 'he was played into Hanoi's hands for his ego and doesn't even know it'; or when Poindexter tells his predecessor Robert McFarlane that then secretary of state George Schultz is 'too damn emotional' and complains that Schultz is trying to distance himself from the breaking Iran-contra scandal, adding, 'I'm terribly disappointed with the way George has handled this . . . I sent him a rather scorching message yesterday'. North, whom the book reveals to have a sense of humour to match his penchant for scheming and dishonesty, can also be bitchy to someone's face (or rather, their terminal). When a Reagan aide talks of setting up a meeting between the president and the relatives of US hostages in Lebanon, North messages him thus: 'As usual Miller, you are incredibly screwed up. I believe you may fall into the category we marines refer to as 'untrainable' . . . please answer the following questions to save me from having to leap through my bung hole.' Hilarious insight is gained into famous episodes of the time, such as the 'people power' revolution in the Philippines, when North and his colleagues referred to Ferdinand Marcos as 'The Flying Dutchman' because no country wanted to take him. Nevertheless, we witness North cooking up a scheme with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega - 'Noriega and I have built up a good relationship over the years', he messages a superior - to have Marcos sent to Panama. In another bizarre entry, National Security Council official William Martin says he received a call from Haley Barbour - the Republican Party's national chairman - who says he has a millionaire friend offering to sell a private Honduran island to the Marcoses for their home in exile. As for one message from North to a female aide, we may never know what the ex-marine had in mind. Calling himself 'your pal the ayatolla', he wrote: 'Oh Lord, I lost the slip and broke one of the high heels. Will return the wig on Monday.' Despite the voyeuristic pleasure of the volume, its publication does raise serious issues about privacy, as none of the e-mailers ever expected their private thoughts to become public. The book's editor, Tom Blanton, defends it by arguing he omitted the prurient in favour of policy matters of public interest: 'Power - and the misuse of it - is the real issue in the White House e-mail case.' Blanton's rather moralistic defence is rapidly being bolstered by the changing climate of legal opinion on electronic secrecy. Whereas judges in the past tended to lean in favour of protecting personal privacy, they have begun to support the use of private e-mail as evidence in civil and criminal cases. This issue, only in its infancy, is a potential legal minefield, and is certain to have corporate America - as well as the government - sweeping for mines which could well be buried under every centimetre of the information superhighway.