White House to Announce New Policy Disclosing Visitors to White House*

Sep 4, 2009 7:03am

President Obama will announce today that the White House will regularly make public most of the names of visitors 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  “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.”

Officials say that every month they will post on-line records of visitors from the previous 90-120 days.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs this morning said of this new policy: “It’s historic, it’s groundbreaking…It’s as important a transparency mechanism as been instituted in decades here. It is something I think every administration after this one will find it difficult — if not impossible — to walk away from.”

The new policy is the result of the Justice Department settling lawsuits brought by the good government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which had sought visitors logs from both the Obama and Bush White Houses. In a letter from Justice Department attorney Brad Rosenberg, the administration outlined details of its settlement with CREW, which included the new policy.

The released logs will provide the following information about visitors: their full name, whom they met with, when they entered the White House and when they left.

The policy will take affect on Sept. 15, and will not be retroactive to the beginning of  Mr. Obama’s presidency. The policy change was first reported by USA Today.

“There are approximately on average in a month 70-100,000 visitors that are waived in,” Gibbs explained. “For an eight-month period you’re talking 560,000 -800,000 visitors that have on average been here and have accumulated in those logs. What the President asked many to do in this White House in February was to review the policy that as you all know had governed every previous administration. The result of today’s action settles litigation that, a bunch of it dating back to the previous administrations, and for the first time in history people that enter the White House for business and for meetings will be known to the public.”

The move marks a significant policy change. The Bush administration refused to make public visitor's logs. Reporters and others had sought them during the Jack Abramoff scandal, and in Vice President Cheney's meetings with his energy task force. In 2006, the Secret Service and the Bush White House declared the logs off-limits to the public.

In January of this year, a federal judge ruled against the "presidential communications privilege" President Bush had invoked. The White House would have to make the visitors logs public, he ruled.

CREW had sought the logs to learn more about visits to the White House by conservative religious leaders and a Texas businessman and lobbyist accused of selling access to Bush administration officials in exchange for contributions to the pending George W. Bush presidential library.

CREW also served as a thorn in the Obama White House's side, earlier this year filing a lawsuit to force disclosure of meetings from officials of the pharmaceutical and clean coal industries with the Obama administration.

“Today the Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise," said CREW executive director Melanie Sloan in a statement. "The Obama administration will have the most open White House in history.  Providing public access to visitor records is an important step in restoring transparency and accountability to our government.”

Before the logs are released each month, the White House counsel’s office will review them and remove those covered by the exemptions being made for national security reasons, and the privacy of the First and Second Families pertaining to personal visits that do not involve any official or political business..

"This will not be something where a group of people will be hidden," Gibbs says, "the point of the exception is to prevent the identities of those whose lives you could endanger by releasing"

Case by case exemptions also will be made for those visits of political sensitivity – like Supreme Court candidates — Gibbs said their will be held back for a “little bit of time.”

“ We will report the number of those meetings that are held back,” Gibbs said said, “and then those meeting will ultimately be released when it becomes more appropriate to do so."

Other exemptions, the White House says, will be for records "that implicate personal privacy or law enforcement concerns (e.g., dates of birth, social security numbers, and contact phone numbers)," and records that implicate the personal safety of White House staff, including their daily arrival and departure times. White House officials will apparently have sole discretion as to this subjective decision-making.

The administration will attempt to provide similar information for visitors to Vice President Biden's residence, officials said, and Gibbs said he would look into whether or not these transparency rules would also apply to those visiting the President or administration officials at Camp David and on Air Force One.

– jpt

*This post has been updated with Gibbs' comments.

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