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Where’s the Transparency in the White House Visitor Logs?

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 thingbut 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.

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14 Comments

  1. mushon 23:47, Mar 8th, 10

    Well put. We have white-washing, green-washing, it seems like at this phase the visitor logs are not more than transparent-washing. This is a very important analysis and I also appreciate the fact it’s not just a rant, you have specified what the Obama administration can do to start steering this initiative in the right direction.
    I think you should try to get this published somewhere else too. I know some people in this field, but I suspect you know most of them much better than I do. Great post!

  2. jay 10:55, Mar 9th, 10

    Some good thoughts, and some I disagree with.

    I would caution that great quote (poorly transcribed i’m sure) to never ascribe to conspiracy that which can be explained by a lack of proficiency.

    For example, it often takes weeks just to hear back from someone. Let along get official legal approval to post something as personally identifying as names!

  3. HoniehLayla 11:13, Mar 9th, 10

    There is no transparency here. If the logs were un edited then I would change my judgment. The obvious lapse in time only can verify information that journalists are seeking. I would like to know why it takes so long to process these lists. I understand that 75,000 names per release is a large set of data, but in this day in age, that’s pennies. Also, I do understand that removing the names of family and friends may to some people not follow the apparent goal this project was taking – but put yourself in their position. I wouldn’t want my family and friends to be stalked or watched constantly by journalists because they were meeting me at my home.

  4. Ryan 13:10, Mar 10th, 10

    This was a great post by the way. I personally think that it was a nice PR scheme to make it seem like they were being more transparent by letting the public know who came into the house after 90-120 days after just because the previous administrations did it. However, I at least have to tip my hat to the administration for the effort to at least come off more transparent. That’s the difficult thing about government that you have to be careful of – they can’t let the public know everything because of matters of security whether domestic or international. That’s just how the cookie crumbles.

    You say, “I feel strongly that they do have a responsibility to make sure they are accurate representations of who is coming and going and why!” I very much agree, because spewing out thousands of random names with no affiliations is problematic. Even though they say transparency, its still very murky.

    I wonder who is in charge with releasing the information and how do they compute it per se (transcribe it electronically)? That would have been great if you could have found that person.

  5. ElzbthMllr 13:51, Mar 10th, 10

    Thanks Ryan and everyone for the feedback. I’m actually scheduled to talk next with someone a bit more in depth about this, but it has to be off the record. So, we will see what I learn!

  6. Leslie 00:46, Apr 23rd, 10

    Hey Elizabeth! I added some info to the “Transparency” section of the “Presidency of Barack Obama” page on Wikipedia. At the end of the 2nd to last paragraph, I wrote: “The data that is released may be incomplete, though. Furthermore, it is unclear when information is considered “confidential” and names are not included in the logs.” Here’s the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidency_of_Barack_Obama#Transparency

  7. nadine 09:37, Apr 23rd, 10

    Leslie, somebody deleted your comment. It seems to be really difficult to make changes to controversial wiki post like about the Obama presidency…

  8. Leslie 09:53, Apr 23rd, 10

    Wow!! Really? Ugh! The 1st time I tried it, it never came up because I didn’t source it. But, I found a source & tried it a 2nd time & my addition showed up for at least a little bit. That is very sad…maybe I’ll try it again with a different source and see how quickly it’s taken down.

  9. Dave 10:11, Apr 23rd, 10

    Leslie, both times you tried to place your edit in the article they were reverted. The first time because you gave no reliable source, and the second time for the same reason, the source you proved was neither reliable nor did it state what you claimed it did.

    While we applaud people for getting involved and appreciate any help, you should know the rules before making edits. Look at your talk page, and follow the links provided, to understand the rules.

    As far as the content you were trying to add, as well as the gist of this blog here that your friend Elizabeth wrote, it is incorrect. Just because the information is huge does not mean that it’s useless. Only one searching for something “wrong” in a esoteric sense would be frustrated at the bulk of information. If one is searching for specifics, then the information is very useful.

    That is what Elizabeth’s problem is here, she seems to believe that the information provided should be easy access to something suspicious.

    The access to, and the publishing of, the visitor logs has been rated by independent watchdogs and transparency groups as groundbreaking, and that is what is reported by the consensus of reliable sources.

  10. Leslie 11:12, Apr 23rd, 10

    Hi Dave, thank you for your comment. I perfectly understand that the 1st time my edit was deleted was because there was no source, which is why I went back and added a source. I am sorry that the source I picked is not up to par with Wikipedia’s standards, and I will gladly go back and find a more fitting one. Might these do the deed?- http://www.judicialwatch.org/weeklyupdate/2009/50-jw-visits-obama-white-house & http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33556933/ns/politics-white_house/

    Also, I do not think Elizabeth or I are claiming that the visitor logs are “useless.” It is most definitely a groundbreaking act on Obama’s part- I am (we are) not denying that. I think Elizabeth was simply stating that we must keep a skeptical eye towards it. In fact, in my statement on Wikipedia, I never said that the visitor logs were “useless.” According to Elizabeth’s research and the sources I found, I simply stated that the logs “MAY BE incomplete.” This does not mean they are useless to any extent.

    Also, with your mention that “If one is searching for specifics, then the information is very useful”…if theres an undisclosed amount of information that is not available, how can the information be overly useful? It seems as if it would be difficult to get to specifics if all the information is not available to search through.

    All in all, I definitely agree with you that the White House Visitor Logs being released is a step in the correct direction, and I believe Elizabeth would agree on this as well (correct me if I’m wrong!), but nothing’s perfect. I was hoping to represent this in a noteworthy/unbiased way in the “Obama’s Presidency” Wikipedia article to make it a more well-rounded article. If you have any other suggestions on how to further do this, I would appreciate any advice. While I thought I was getting a good handle on Wikipedia editing, I will make sure to read more thoroughly into how to properly use the site in the future.

  11. ElzbthMllr 11:30, Apr 23rd, 10

    Yes, thanks Leslie. I never said the logs were useless, or that they weren’t a step in the right direction. In fact, I said the primary way the visitor records were useful were in cases where journalists already knew the information they were looking for (eg did Obama meet with so and so during this time period).

    One of my main issues is the 90-120 time period that the White House sets for releasing names. Source: Norm Eisen on the The White House Blog: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/Opening-up-the-peoples-house. That same blog also says that “a small group of appointments…cannot be disclosed because of national security imperatives or their necessarily confidential nature”. So that tells me the White House itself knows that these lists are incomplete.

  12. Dave 14:47, Apr 23rd, 10

    Leslie, the MSNBC link would be the right kind of link, if it were not so old and the article did not already state what was in the link.

    The Judicial Watch link would be controversial, because they are a partisan, conservative outlet. Though if the link were not stale, and they had an important investigation, it too would be considered.

    As it stands right now, the article already mentions that the logs would not be complete. It states:

    “The administration announced that White House visitor logs will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis, with certain limitations, for visits occurring after September 15, 2009.[145] Beginning on January 29th, 2010, the White House did begin to release the names of its visitor records.[146] 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.[147] Names are released 90-120 days after having visited the White House. The complete list of names is available online by accessing the official White House website. [148]”

    Each section is cited by sources and complete.

    Ok, now for Elizabeth. I wasn’t trying to discourage your research, only what was and what was not viable to introduce into Wikipedia, in regards to reliable sources and undue weight. Standards that govern the way articles are kept.

    I understand the impatience of some younger activists and/or college students. In any case, both the lag in time for the release(90-120 days) and the fact that certain limitations on which visitors would not be included(personal family visits and security concerns) are already in the article.

    No offense meant to either of you, or your readers/friends here.

    Thanks –

    Dave

  13. Leslie 20:06, Apr 23rd, 10

    Thank you for the feedback, Dave. It’s been fun learning how to properly edit Wikipedia- thanks for the further explanation!

  14. nadine 20:33, Apr 23rd, 10

    Thanks Dave, thanks Leslie! This was quite helpful too: About reliable sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Verifiability#Reliable_sources

One Trackback

  1. [...] Jaschik, Scott. “A Stand Against Wikipedia.” Inside Higher Ed. 08 March 2010. Web. 27 December 2010. <http://cultureandcommunication.org/tdm/s10/03/08/wheres-the-transparency-in-the-white-house-visitor-…>. [...]

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