Group Files Suit Against Obama Administration for Access to Visitor Logs
By Michael D. Shear
President Obama has embraced Bush Administration justifications for denying public access to White House visitors logs even as advisers say they are reviewing the policy of keeping secret the official record of comings and goings.
In recent days, the Secret Service has rejected requests from two organizations for the logs, which document the West Wing meetings that have helped shape Obama's policies on banking regulation, economic recovery, foreign policy and the auto industry.
Today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration seeking release of the visits of coal company executives to the White House. Msnbc.com reported today that their broader request for logs since Jan. 20 was also denied.
"The Obama administration has now taken exactly the same position as the Bush administration, telling us the visitor logs are presidential records," said Anne Weismann, the legal counsel for CREW. "I don't see how you can keep people from knowing who visits the White House and adhere to a policy of openness and transparency. The discrepancy between the rhetoric and the policy is especially great."
Asked about the issue by reporters, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said today that the administration's policy regarding the release of the logs is under review.
"The policy -- as you know, and I think many of you know, this has involved -- visitor logs have been involved in some litigation dating back to sometime in 2006," Gibbs said. "The White House is reviewing that policy based on some of that litigation."
Gibbs declined to say when the review would be completed, but said it is being conducted by the White House counsel's office and "other people."
"The goal is, and I think the president underscored his commitment to transparency on his first full day in office," Gibbs said. "This is not a contest between this administration or that administration or any administration. It's to uphold the principle of open government."
A White House official, who asked for anonymity to discuss the issue, said the denials were issued in accordance with "historically how visitor logs have been treated." The official said the White House is still examining the lawsuit filed by CREW and could not respond yet.
As a candidate, Obama had promised to run a more open and transparent government than his predecessor. Since becoming president, he has repeated those promises in executive orders and declarations saying that the secrecy of the Bush administration was over.
Among the new moves by Obama were the overturning of a Bush executive order that limited public access to presidential records from earlier presidencies; an order to agencies to have a presumption in favor of disclosure when a freedom of information request is made; and a "memorandum of transparency" that Obama signed on his first full day in office.
The transparency memo ordered executive agencies to take "specific action" to be more transparent. A spokesman for the White House noted that the administration has created a website for information about the recovery act, posts presidential memoranda and executive orders on Whitehouse.gov, and streams White House events live on its website.
In a move that generated much controversy, the White House agreed to release memoranda detailing the alleged torture of detainees. That decision sparked a heated debate and was criticized by former Bush administration officials who opposed the release of the memos.
But in the first several months of his presidency, Obama has repeatedly taken the Bush administration position on questions of secrecy, surprising his allies and good government groups who say they had expected a different approach.
The White House initially decided to release photos of detainee abuse but later reversed course. They also continued the Bush administration objections to release of an interview that former vice president Dick Cheney gave to the FBI during its leak investigation. Like the Bush administration, they also moved to dismiss lawsuits that sought White House emails from the last several years.
The White House has also not yet responded to CREW's request for the release of documents produced by the Office of Administration, a branch of the White House that had been subject to FOIA requests until the Bush administration, Weismann said.
"As time goes by, I'm less and less surprised," she said. "Initially, I was very surprised and disappointed. I continue to be disappointed, but with every new decision to hew to the line that the Bush administration took, I guess my surprise is fading."
A White House official said the issue of the visitor logs is one of several secrecy policies under review by the White House legal counsels, along with the "state secrets privilege" under which the government keeps information secret during trials.
During a press conference earlier this year, Obama said the Bush administration's use of that privilege was "too broad" and said the policy was being examined. He said his administration's decision in several court cases claim the privilege was the result of his short time in office.
"But keep in mind what happens, is we come in to office," Obama said. "We're in for a week, and suddenly we've got a court filing that's coming up. And so we don't have the time to effectively think through, what exactly should an overarching reform of that doctrine take? We've got to respond to the immediate case in front of us."
Posted at 2:14 PM ET on Jun 16, 2009
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