White House to Voluntarily Release Visitor Logs
by Roger Strother*, 9/4/2009
Today, the Obama administration made an important advance in executive branch transparency by agreeing to publish the White House visitor logs. Norm Eisen wrote on the White House blog that, “Each month, records of visitors from the previous 90-120 days will be made available online.” The White House agreed to this measure as part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). As part of this settlement, the Obama administration will also turn over some visitor logs belonging to the Bush administration.
This is a major shift from the Obama administration’s initial stance and I applaud them for breaking away from the secrecy policy of the previous administration.
The new White House voluntary disclosure policy applies to White House and Vice Presidential logs created after September 15, 2009 meaning that the first release of visitor logs under the policy will not occur until December 31, 2009 once those records are 90 days old. The White House also agreed to release some earlier records from the Obama and Bush administrations that CREW was seeking. These records concern visits by healthcare and coal executives.
While the new policy is a very welcome ray of sunshine on this issue, there are a few further improvements I would like to see in the future. As the policy continues to consider the logs to be Presidential Records, they will not be subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, despite the fact that an agency, the Department of Homeland Security, maintains the records. Thus, future administrations retain the authority to shut down this disclosure policy at any time. If the Obama administration believes in the public’s right to these records but continues to view them as presidential records, it should work with Congress to legislatively require the logs' timely disclosure from all administrations.
Secondly, the 90-120 day delay in releasing the records prevents the public from knowing who is lobbying the administration in real-time. To echo Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, I hope that technological advances for the way these records are created and processed will help expedite their release.
Finally, in the logs released as part of the settlement with CREW, the administration exercised broader redaction than I would prefer. For instance, descriptions of meetings were almost always redacted. We know who they’re meeting with, but usually not about what. I hope that when the new disclosures start at the end of December, the subject of the meetings will be released. Similarly I hope the administration will eventually release all of the Obama logs from before Sept. 15.
All in all, the administration’s actions demonstrate both their commitment to open government and their willingness to adapt and change as they become more familiar with the issues facing them. This change in position may indicate that with time and consideration, this administration is willing to shift from Bush policies that they initially upheld. There have been other open government issues that could use such a shift, such as FOIA litigation cases and assertions of State Secrets.