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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.

White House Visitor Logs: Transparency or Bust?

Question: Does the releasing of the White House Visit Logs promote transparency as the Obama administration claims that it does? Are there instances when this information has furthered investigative journalism? Are there instances when it hasn’t, but it could have? Can this information be exploited? Is there any level of accountability in the whole process? Is it true that the vast majority of names on the list are simply tourists? Does it simply lead to more speculation about why these meetings take place?

Original Assumption: My original assumption is that the publishing of these lists is a good thing. While it may not go far enough in disclosing information, my general feeling is that this is a good first step towards providing information that journalists can use as a source in their reporting. The list is made available online and is searchable (which is a lot more than you can say for other various pieces of information that are available to the public), and does go into providing a certain amount of data. I do have to say I am somewhat skeptical to what extent these lists are censored. I find this frustrating because there is really no way to know what information is left out, it seems anything can be classified as “confidential.” It also clearly doesn’t solve the problem of knowing about what meetings take place not at the White House (is there any way to figure out percentage wise the number of meetings that may be). There also seem to be several problems with the lists such as duplicate names, as well as the fact that it’s released 90 days after. I don’t see any reason that they could not be released sooner, 90 days seem a bit extreme.

Related Norms: The whole issue of transparency and the Obama administration is discussed a lot. People often hail the website data.gov as a huge shift in how information is conveyed both internally and externally to the public. And of course others criticize it and say it doesn’t go far enough. (See this article for a discussion of the UK Open Data site and why it is superior to data.gov). But it begs the question as to why we as a culture are seeing an increase shift in demanding transparency – whether its in disclosing earmarks in legislation, campaign contributions, information on how laws are being made, or just generally about where information comes from. It definitely seems as though the release of the White House Visitor Logs are along the same vein of transparency movement by the President. But it begs the question, should these lists even be released to begin with? If it proves that they aren’t providing valuable data, what is the point?

A few other points to consider…

Having played around with visitor logs over the past few days, there are several important characteristics that I noted:

  • It’s user friendly, specifically it’s easy to navigate, rarely crashes, and allows users to search for as specific or as general information as you want
  • You can download the data into various formats (Excel), this allows for the data to be used in mashups and other various forms by innovative and motivated users
  • It allows you to link lists and results searched for automatically to Twitter, Google, Reddit, Delicious, MySpace, Facebook, Digg, StumbleUpon, etc.

In my next post, I will look closely at several instances related to all my above questions and assumptions:

  • How has the mainstream media covered this issue? Do they take a specific angle? Is it celebratory or more critical?
  • Are there examples of where this data has been useful in journalism and news stories.
  • Are there instances where the data may not have been used, but could have been?

I will also do a bit more digging as well trying to answer the following questions:

  1. How many names appear on this list? How many do not appear? (eg how many actual visitors vs. reported visitors)
  2. What kinds of visitors besides tourists appear on these lists?

Any advice or thoughts would be appreciated! Thanks!

What Lies Ahead

[The images below refer to the recent instances of
irresponsible spreading of unverified information on
each of the following platforms. I did not initiate
or spread any of them.]

F a c e b o o k

Information content on this site includes text – status updates and wall posts, mainly. These are major rumor-mongering tools because they do not cite a source beyond themselves and their accuracy and authority can therefore not be verified. Content also includes shared links which can be evaluated to verify authenticity and accuracy. I will post incorrect information in both formats and ensure that it can be verified as incorrect.

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