Obama Will Release White House Visitor Logs

Looks as if we’ll soon know more about who is coming and going at the White House. The Obama administration announced today that it will begin voluntarily releasing visitor logs to the White House, disclosing on its Web site the names of thousands of people who come into the complex each year. It won’t be instantaneous. The policy, which goes into effect on Sept. 15, will allow the release of visitor logs and access information electronically captured by the Secret Service at least 90 days after the fact—meaning we won’t get to see the first list of names until roughly December. There will also be limits on what we will see. The names of personal guests of the Obamas won't be released—something the Bush White House, for all its stonewalling on visitor lists, occasionally did. The White House also won’t disclose people visiting for what administration officials describe as “sensitive meetings”—though according to the statement explaining the policy, it will tell us when it's holding back such information and release it at a later time when the information is not “sensitive.”

That prompts a few major questions. What exactly will the White House categorize as “sensitive"? One example the administration cites is a meeting with a potential Supreme Court nominee. But it’s hard not to imagine top Obama aides as viewing everything they do as potentially sensitive, particularly when it comes to meeting with outside groups or activists to talk strategy. And will the White House play it straight when it comes to how it categorizes its visitors? Will so-called personal visitors be on strictly personal visits? After all, both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton hosted “personal” guests who happened to be major political donors. According to the statement explaining the policy, “The White House will not release access records related to purely personal guests of the first and second families (i.e., visits that do not involve any official or political business).”

One thing we will learn from the logs: who the people came into the White House to see, where the meeting took place, and how long the visit lasted—and that’s a very big deal. This policy change is in response to a spate of lawsuits dating back to the Bush years, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney and his staffers hosted dozens of oil-industry lobbyists as they sought input on energy policy. In recent months, reporters have been pressing the Obama White House on who it's been talking to on health-care reform—particularly in light of word that top Obama aides negotiated with pharmaceutical-industry representatives on a potential policy fix. (In July officials released a list of lobbyists who had visited the White House.) The deal settles a lawsuit brought by the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which had been trashing the Obama administration for being as secretive as the Bush White House—in spite of the fact that Obama campaigned on bringing transparency to Washington. Earlier this summer, the White House denied a Freedom of Information Act request for the records. Asked at a news conference earlier this summer about the discrepancy between his campaign rhetoric and his actual policy, Obama dodged the question. This morning it was a different story. “We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent administration in history not only by opening the doors of the White House to more Americans but by shining a light on the business conducted inside,” Obama said in a statement. “Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.”

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