The administration of President Barack Obama, when boasting about Obama’s record on openness and transparency, regularly cites how it is now releasing White House visitor logs. It has been an “achievement” the administration explicitly mentions during Sunshine Week, a week where journalists and open government advocates celebrate transparency in government.
During an event this week, Lisa Ellman, a chief counselor for the Open Government Partnership, stated, “For the first time in history, the White House posted visitor logs, salaries, and ethics waivers online.” White House spokesperson Eric Schultz told the Washington Post, “Obama was the first president to release White House visitor records.”
In Obama’s 2010 “State of the Union,” he spoke about being transparent about who visits the White House. He said, “We face a deficit of trust – deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; and to give our people the government they deserve.”
Grinning, he said during a January Google+ Hangout event this year, “This is the most transparent administration in history and I can document how that is the case. Everything from every visitor that comes into the White House is now part of the public record – that’s something that we changed.”
However, it is not something the White House or Obama administration took the initiative to change. Organizations like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Judicial Watch filed lawsuits because the administration refused to release visitor logs. The White House is releasing the records voluntarily and still maintains the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the visitor logs, which means the next presidential administration could easily decide to not release them to the public.
Visitor logs, according to CREW chief counsel Ann Weissmann, “contain only that information the Secret Service needs to ensure no visitor to the White House poses a risk to the safety or security of any of its occupants.” They are valuable in the sense that they can reveal “the kind or level of influence an individual visitor might have.”
On January 9, 2009—prior to Obama’s inauguration, the US District Court for DC ruled the visitor logs must be disclosed. CREW was seeking records of “nine conservative religious leaders as well as records of visits by Stephen Payne, who was caught on videotape attempting to sell access to top White House officials in return for contributions to the Bush presidential library.” The Bush administration had previously lost the lawsuit after US Chief District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth found hiding the identities of people “who visit the White House from the public undermines the FOIA’s goal of fostering openness and accountability in government.”
Even though Obama was now president and had made significant open government pledges, the administration would not release visitor logs. CREW filed two lawsuits against the Department of Homeland Security, which had custody of the records. One lawsuit, filed in June of 2009, sought records of coal company executives’ visits to the White House and another lawsuit, filed in July of 2009, sought records of health care executives who had visited the White House.
According to Weissmann, who litigated the lawsuits for records, CREW “settled litigation, which began under the Bush administration and continued through the Obama administration, when the White House offered to not only provide CREW with its requested records but to post on the White House’s website on an ongoing basis nearly all visitor records subject to very limited and reasonable expectations.” Records after September 2009 would be posted.
Judicial Watch, a conservative legal watchdog group, filed a lawsuit to force the release of visitor logs between January and September 2009. A judge ruled on August 17, 2011, the records are subject to FOIA and should be disclosed unless they can be withheld under one of the law’s exemptions.
On October 14, 2011, the Obama administration appealed the ruling. It chose to maintain the position of President George W. Bush’s administration: that the visitor logs were presidential records not subject to FOIA.
Major media outlets filed briefs in support of Judicial Watch in May 2012. They expressed concern that, “Reversal of the decision below may encourage federal agencies to seek to place millions of documents outside of FOIA’s ambit based on no more than their say-so, even in the face of express statutes and judicial orders directly to the contrary. Permitting such an end-run around FOIA would significantly reduce the quantity and quality of information available to the media and, consequently, to the public at large, severely undermining the goal of an informed public that sits at the core of our democracy.”
Federal appellate court judges heard argument on releasing the visitor logs in September 2012. (There does not appear to have been a ruling by the court yet.)
Meanwhile, even as it continues to appeal the decision and fight mandatory disclosure under FOIA, the White House continues to make “voluntary” releases of the logs.
On February 22, 2013, a post on the White House blog described:
In September 2009, the President announced that—for the first time in history—White House visitor records would be made available to the public on an ongoing basis. Today, the White House releases visitor records that were generated in November 2012. Today’s release also includes visitor records generated prior to September 16, 2009 that were requested by members of the public in January 2013 pursuant to the White House voluntary disclosure policy. This release brings the total number of records made public by this White House to more than 3 million—all of which can be viewed in our Disclosures section.
Yet, as Daniel Schuman, policy counsel and director for the Sunlight Foundation, stated during a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing, “The White House has significant discretion about which logs to release, and it is unclear how a future president would behave. There’s also significant opportunity for avoiding disclosure, such as meetings at coffee shops across the street from the White House. We believe the rules regarding disclosure of visitor logs should be fleshed out and enacted into law. Of course, to truly track the exertion of influence by special interests, we need comprehensive lobbying reform.”
As thoroughly demonstrated, this should not be something the Obama administration is able to promote as an example of their commitment to transparency and openness. An “achievement” are not typically fought in court in efforts that could make it easy for the “achievement” to be unraveled completely. And this post is a rebuttal to any Obama official that touts this “achievement,” even as they are litigating against transparency in US courts.
The reality is the claim of being the “most transparent administration ever” is “puffery,” as in advertising. It is as true as a claim by a corporation that their product is 100% favored by Americans.
From invoking state secrets privilege to pursuing a record amount of “leaks” prosecutions to refusing to release the legal basis for targeted killing operations in official Office of Legal Counsel opinions to doing nothing about the fact that a majority of federal agencies are violating freedom of information law to the Justice Department defending government agencies whenever they oppose FOIA requests, the commitment to open government is exceedingly questionable because in many instances the administration’s actions do more to preserve secrecy than instill transparency.