Daily Archives: September 5, 2009

White House to Open Visitor Logs to Public

This could actually be a good thing.  The only thing that I am concerned about would be that the WH would go and label just about any meeting “sensitive” and then they would not have to disclose who was there.  I think there is potential of abuse in that broadly vague term “sensitive.”  But we will have to wait and see, it could turn out to be a great thing!

WASHINGTON — President Obama announced Friday that he will open up White House visitor logs on a regular basis for the first time in modern history, providing the public an unusually extensive look at who gets the opportunity to help shape American policy at the highest levels.

“Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process,” the president said in a written statement issued by the White House while he vacationed with his family at Camp David. The new policy settles four lawsuits against the government seeking such records.

By the end of the year, the White House will begin posting online every month the names of the people who visited in the last 90 to 120 days. Each person’s full name will be listed, along with the date and time they entered and left and the name of the person they visited. About 70,000 to 100,000 people visit the White House each month, and the records will include tourists as well as people conducting business.

The White House outlined several exceptions to the policy: “purely personal guests” of the Obama family; those cases in which the disclosure of visitors’ names “would threaten national security interests”; and those who come for “particularly sensitive meetings,” like candidates for a Supreme Courtnomination. Officials said only a “small number” will fit in the latter category, and their names would eventually be disclosed after they are no longer secret, like after a nomination is publicly announced. Moreover, they said, the number of undisclosed visitors will be revealed, to make clear how few they are.

Although advocacy groups that push for open government generally hailed the new policy, some said it should also apply to federal agencies and complained that the exceptions were too broad. The White House left itself “a huge loophole,” said Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It can label meetings ‘particularly sensitive,’ and then it does not have to tell us who they’re meeting with.”

The White House under Republicans and Democrats has historically fought efforts to disclose who comes inside the gates, arguing that it would intrude on presidential prerogatives. President Bill Clinton resisted releasing records showing how many times Monica Lewinsky visited the White House, succumbing only under pressure from the independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr. President George W. Bush resisted releasing records of industry executives who participated in the energy task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney, ultimately losing in court.

Mr. Obama reversed decades of precedent to settle four Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the government filed by the public interest groupCitizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The group, known as CREW, sued to obtain records of White House visitors. Mr. Obama promised greater transparency as a candidate last year and opted to drop the fight against the suits in favor of the new policy.

“It’s historic; it’s groundbreaking,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. “It’s as important a transparency mechanism as has been instituted in decades here.”

CREW’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, said Mr. Obama had proved that his rhetoric “was more than just a campaign promise” and that because of the new policy he “will have the most open White House in history.”

CREW sued the government twice under Mr. Bush, seeking visitor records of Christian conservative leaders and a lobbyist, Stephen Payne. The White House argued that those records constituted presidential documents and were therefore exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, but a federal judge disagreed and the case was being appealed. The group subsequently sued the Obama White House twice seeking visitor records of health care and coal industry executives to determine their influence on policy.

As part of the settlement, the White House released those records on Friday, but its new policy will apply only to visitors starting Sept. 15. The 90-to-120-day lead time means the first online posting of visitors will not take place until Dec. 31 or so, the White House said.

While the new policy will result in more information on White House visitors being made public than ever before, the exceptions do allow for continued secrecy in some cases depending on how liberally they are interpreted. What constitutes a “particularly sensitive” meeting? Who qualifies as a “purely personal guest”? Mr. Clinton, for example, described some fund-raisers who stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom as friends, who could therefore be construed as exempt under the Obama policy.

Moreover, since the policy is voluntary, no outside entity will have the authority to monitor whether the White House is applying exceptions appropriately and no future presidents will be formally bound by it, although it may be hard for them politically to make records secret again after the precedent is established.

The policy does not apply to the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory, which uses a different records system. But the White House said it would release guest lists for all official functions at the residence as well names of people on Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s official schedule. The policy does not cover Camp David or Air Force One.




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