In September of 2009, President Obama announced that he would release the names of White House Visitors. It was hailed both by the White House administration, as well as several reporters, newspapers and civic ethics groups as a landmark for transparency. It was “proof” that this administration would be more open and honest, and the first step towards releasing information that was formerly secretive. The decision to release the records was claimed to be voluntary, and it was announced that the visitor logs would be made available online. And true to his word, beginning on January 29th, 2010, the White House did in fact begin to release the names of its visitor records. Since that time, names of visitors (which includes not only tourists, but also names of union leaders, Wall Street executives, lobbyists, party chairs, philanthropists and celebrities), have been released. The names are released in huge batches up to 75,000 names at a time. However, as I will show, within the sheer quantity of this data lies the problem.
But the honesty about the motives behind this effort as well as its extremely poor execution have been disappointing. There are several key areas that illustrate just how far off the White House is from maintaining an open and transparent effort:
- There is no justification for waiting between 90-120 days to release this information. This is a huge burden that puts investigators at a serious disadvantage when accessing records. By the time the information is made public, it is clearly too late to do anything about it.
- There is no ability to tell what visitor logs are considered “confidential” and therefore have been intentionally left off of this list, additionally, personal guests of the first family are left off – yet there’s no clear definition of what that means. There’s absolutely no indication of how many names have been left off – is it 100? 500? 1000? It may be cynical, but my guess is these aren’t all visitors whose names aren’t being released due to “security concerns.”
- The data as its released is often incomplete. Although it logs the visitors first and last name, as well both the time they signed in and out, and who they met with, often times the reasons that they met with a particular person is left blank. Additionally, there is no affiliation of the visitor’s name listed. This is a serious problem, because unless journalists or activists know the name of the person they are looking for, it’s unlikely that they could identify anything of substance due to the sheer quantity of the data they are presented with.
- Although the White House claimed the data release was voluntary, it’s looking more likely that the policy was the result of the Justice Department settling lawsuits brought by the “good government group” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) which had sought visitor’s logs from both the Obama and Bush administrations.
- There is no accountability to the process. Citizens and journalists have no authority to request the names of unreleased visitors.
- A conservative public interest group called Judicial Watch (which “investigates and prosecutes government corruption”) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Secret Service for denying Judicial Watch’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for access to Obama White House visitor logs from January 20 to August 10, 2009. According to them, the Obama administration continues to advance the erroneous claim that the visitor logs are not agency records and are therefore not subject to FOIA. As Judicial Watch noted in its complaint, this claim “has been litigated and rejected repeatedly” by federal courts. Their complaint is that even though the Obama White House did voluntarily release a select number of White House visitor logs to the public, other records continue to be withheld in defiance of FOIA law.
Although these are some serious points of contention, there are reported instances where journalists have worked to troll through these lists to find valuable information, because there are certain examples of it, but as Mushon pointed out, it’s usually in a case of “gotcha journalism”, that is, journalists were able to use the logs to prove a theory they already had about who visited Obama and when. In these cases the lists became valuable sources that investigative journalism could use to prove that President Obama or his advisers met with various labor union leaders, business executives, or specific members of Congress. However, even in cases where journalists have been able to pull out some important names, they’re linking them pretty tightly to policies or actions taken, but to a certain extent it’s largely speculation. In fact, it’s possible the whereabouts of these meetings would have been known without the White House visitor logs because so often people who meet with Obama disclose this information themselves. To be fair, the Obama administration made these searches available online and has made them fairly easy to navigate and to download and this marks a visible shift from previous administrations. This has allowed for innovation, such as the following networked map put together by a blogger “The Networked Thinker” which showed some of meetings individuals had with certain members of the White House staff (click the thumbnail to enlarge or click here to see the original blog post).
Some would argue it’s not the White House’s job to help the public go through these lists, and that they’ve done enough to release the data, but I feel strongly that they do have a responsibility to make sure they are accurate representations of who is coming and going and why!
The Obama administration may want to point these logs as examples of openness and a willingness to open its inner workings to the public, but so far, that transparency does not exist. Mainstream media has yet to seriously question both the validity of the information on these lists, as well as the White House’s motives and it’s sad that so very few are willing to ask the tough questions. Not until the administration can release the records in a much more timely and manageable way can we even start to understand this as an effort for to be more transparent. If the White House were to release the visitors at the end of each week say, it would be a much more manageable list that citizens and journalists could go through. Additionally, the White House should list the affiliations of the visitors, not only their names, but also who they work for. Perhaps have various types of visitors (eg Class A refers to tourists, Class B to lobbyists, Class C to political figures, etc) so that investigators would have some sort of reference to start looking for patterns, or particular visitors etc.
I have to say that I finish this travalogue at a very different point from where I started. When I first began to investigate this issue, I was pretty clearly the side of the Obama administration. I knew that there were going to be some problems with the data, but overall I did feel this was a good thing – but not anymore. In fact, the lists are so problematic that I fear the Obama administration has done a great disservice to the public by claiming to have several values, which if evaluated solely on this project, they do not appear to have. Unfortunately by doing so, they’ve cheapened those values dramatically.