White House Settles Lawsuit, Agrees to Disclose Some Visitor Logs Online

white-house-pictureThe Obama administration and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) settled four lawsuits Thursday regarding public access to White House visitor records.

The most significant development, CREW said, is the commitment by the Obama administration to post visitor records online on an ongoing basis, bringing a historic level of transparency to the White House.

“For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis,” President Obama said in a statement from Camp David Friday.  “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 policy making process.”

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.

MSNBC reported, however:

Information on visitors in the first eight months of his administration will remain secret — though officials say they will consider narrow and specific requests.

The White House called the release of information “voluntary,” continuing to argue the Bush administration’s position that full disclosure is not required by the Freedom of Information Act…

The release will be time delayed, with 90 to 120 days passing before the records are posted on the White House Web site. And only visits after Sept. 15, 2009, will be revealed. The first wave of records is expected to be posted around Dec. 31.

Still, 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.”

But Michael German, of the ACLU’s Washington, D.C. legislative office, said Friday that “while the new policy is commendable, some vaguely worded exceptions to it do raise concerns about the potential for abuse in classifying matters under the umbrella of national security.”

“We encourage President Obama to define these exceptions narrowly and to keep secret visits in the White House to a minimum,” German said. “The ACLU will continue to hold the administration to its commitment to be, in its own words, ‘the most open and transparent administration in history.'”

Thursday’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.

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.

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.

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