President Barack Obama announced on Sept. 5, 2009, that his administration would begin voluntarily releasing the names of White House visitors in order to settle a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit from the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
The president released a statement on September 4 regarding the new disclosure policy, which the administration called "another indication of [Obama's] commitment to an open and transparent government."
"Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process," the statement said.
Prior to its announcement, the Obama administration had taken the same position as the Bush administration by refusing to release the visitor logs and arguing that they were not subject to FOIA requests. (See "White House Continues to Resist Open Government Group's FOIA Requests" in the Summer 2009 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
The new policy, available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/VoluntaryDisclosure, states that the White House will release a monthly list containing the names of those who visited four months prior. "The short time lag will allow the White House to continue to conduct business, while still providing the American people with an unprecedented amount of information about their government,"the policy states.
The policy applies only to visitor records created after September 15, 2009, and the release of visitor names is subject to a list of exceptions, including the ability of the administration to withhold visitor records "whose release would threaten national security interests," records "related to purely personal guests of the first and second families," and records "related to a small group of particularly sensitive meetings," such as visits of potential Supreme Court nominees. The policy also states that the administration would respond to individual requests for visitor records dating from Jan. 20 to Sept. 15, 2009, as long as the requests are "reasonable, narrow, and specific."
The White House released its first batch of names on October 30. According to an accompanying White House blog post by Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, the list included 110 visitor names and 481 visits dating from Jan. 20 to July 31, 2009. The names were released in response to requests made for the information during the month of September.
On November 25, another batch of 1,600 visits was released, covering White House visitors through August 31. The list was produced in response to over 300 requests made during the month of October, Eisen wrote in a November 25 White House blog post.
Both posts from Eisen included the caveat that the records include "a few false positives," meaning some White House visitors shared names with well-known people.For example, Eisen noted that the October release included responses to requests for the names of famous or controversial figures such as Michael Jordan, William Ayers, Michael Moore, and Jeremiah Wright."The well-known individuals with those names never actually came to the White House," Eisen wrote."Nevertheless, we were asked for those names and so we have included records for those individuals who were here and share the same names."
In a September 4 post, Eisen said that the new disclosure policy settled four different lawsuits initiated by CREW, dating back to the Bush administration. He also said the first batch of visitor records that will release every name that does not fall under one of the policy's exemptions will be published around December 31, 2009.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the new policy should prove to be precedential. "It's as important a transparency mechanism as has been instituted in decades here. It is something I think every administration after this one will find it difficult - if not impossible - to walk away from," Gibbs said according to a September 4 report by ABC News.
In a statement released in conjunction with the White House's announcement, CREW executive director Melanie Sloan contrasted Obama's new policy with that of his predecessor. "The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise," Sloan said in a September 4 CREW statement. "The Bush administration fought tooth and nail to keep secret the identities of those who visited the White House. In contrast, the Obama administration - by putting visitor records on the White House web site - will have the most open White House in history."
Donna Leinwand, president of the National Press Club, also applauded the move in a September 4 Associated Press (AP) story, saying that "although the president has limited the disclosures, it is a step toward more transparency in government and a reversal of this administration's previous policy."
"We hope the president will continue to choose greater transparency and access without news organizations and public interest groups having to go to court to force such access," Leinwand said.
In response to criticism that the new policy would allow the White House, and not federal law, to determine which records should be disclosed, CREW's chief counsel Anne Weismann said she thought the policy would still be effective. "Yes, it's voluntary," Weismann said in a September 4 post on the blog Gawker. "But I think it would be political suicide for them to retreat from it. We'll see what gets released. I think we'll be able to tell if they're holding back."
In a September 4 post on The New York Times' The Caucus blog, Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists complained that the new policy's exceptions are too broad. Grifo said the White House left itself "a huge loophole," and can now "label meetings 'particularly sensitive' and then it does not have to tell us who they're meeting with."
Despite the settlement, the Obama administration maintains that release of visitor information cannot be compelled under the FOIA. According to an October 17 report from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Secret Service denied an August 10 FOIA request from the government accountability group Judicial Watch asking for all the visitor logs from Jan. 20 - Sept. 15, 2009.
"It is the government's position that the categories of records that you requested are not agency records subject to the FOIA," a response from Homeland Security agent Craig W. Ulmer to the Judicial Watch request said. "Rather, these records are records governed by the Presidential Records Act, 44 U.S.C. section 2201 et seq., and remain under the exclusive legal custody and control of the White House Office and Office of the Vice President."
The denial of Judicial Watch's FOIA request came despite a federal district court judge's January ruling that visitor logs are subject to the FOIA, in Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. U.S. Dept. of Homeland Sec., 592 F. Supp. 2d 111 (D.D.C. 2009).
"The Obama White House has yet to explain why visitor logs from its first eight months will be afforded special protection," Judicial Watch said in a press release on October 16.
"Just because the Obama White House says FOIA law doesn't cover White House visitor logs doesn't make it so. The Obama administration is not above the law," said Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton in the October 16 release. "These visitor logs are subject to release under FOIA and the courts have affirmed this. Judicial Watch has no intention of abandoning its pursuit of these records. We will go to court, if necessary."
MSNBC has also filed a FOIA request for the complete records of all visitors from the first months of the administration, which was also rejected by the White House. According to a November 4 MSNBC story, the network has filed an administrative appeal with the Department of Homeland Security.
- Jacob Parsley
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor