White House Does 180 on Visitor Records

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Remember those Secret Service logs of White House visits by health care and coal industry execs the Obama adminstration was refusing to make public? Or the records of visits by lobbyist Stephen Payne, who was caught on tape peddling access to senior US officials in exchange for a sizable donation to the George W. Bush presidential library, that the Bush administration fought to keep secret? Details of those visits will soon be made public by the Obama White House, which up until now had been following its predecessor’s policy of blocking access to the Secret Service logs. But not just that. Going forward, the adminstration is planning to implement an historic transparency policy, releasing the names of most White House visitors, along with other information, on an ongoing base.

This policy shift comes as the Obama administration moved to settle four cases related to public access to White House visitor logs filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. This morning’s release from CREW:

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan praised the White House, stating, “The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise.  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.  Because visitor records will now be available online, CREW dismissed its lawsuits.”  Sloan continued, “Providing public access to visitor records is an important step in restoring transparency and accountability to our government.  CREW is proud to have been part of this historic decision.”

Yesterday’s agreement stems from lawsuits CREW filed after the Bush and later the Obama administration refused to provide White House visitor records in response to CREW’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  Visitor records are created by the Secret Service as part of its statutory responsibility to protect the president, vice president, their residences, and the White House generally.

In lawsuits for records of visits by Christian conservative leaders and lobbyist Stephen Payne, the Bush administration argued the records were presidential records, not agency records of the Secret Service, and therefore exempt from the FOIA’s mandatory disclosure requirements.  U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth disagreed, ruling twice that the records are subject to the FOIA and not within any of the claimed exemptions.  The government appealed those decisions to the District of Columbia Circuit Court.

After President Obama took office, CREW sought records of visits to the White House by health care and coal executives to determine the degree of their influence on health care and energy legislative proposals.  The government initially refused to turn over these records, but now has agreed to produce them, as well as the Bush era records, as part of the settlement.  In turn, CREW has agreed to dismiss all the pending litigation.

Here’s what Obama had to say about his decision to allow access to the visitor logs, in a statement emailed to reporters this morning:

“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.  Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.”

There will be some exceptions to the administration’s new policy, which goes into effect September 15. According to the White House:

Aside from a small group of appointments that cannot be disclosed because of national security imperatives or their necessarily confidential nature (such as a visit by a possible Supreme Court nominee), the record of every visitor who comes to the White House for an appointment, a tour, or to conduct business will be released. 

Any way you look at it, a pretty momentous win for transparency advocates. 

Follow Daniel Schulman on Twitter.

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Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

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