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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.

WH Visitor Logs: Research Continued

Here’s an update on my research over the past week…

Types of Names that Appear on the White House Visitor’s List: It’s not just tourists names who are being released, although I fear they may be the majority. Names of several prominent union leaders, Wall Street executives, registered power lobbyists, Democratic Party Chairs, business leaders, heads of non-profits and philanthropists also appear.

Mainstream Media’s Coverage: There is little mainstream media coverage of the release of the records, and what stories have been done are pretty generic. When Obama announced the release of the names (October/November), it was covered to some a minor extent and it was mostly celebratory, calling it a “huge step.” Most stories/journalists didn’t challenge the transparency claim of Obama. Since the release of the records several months ago, there has been a little coverage of the lists themselves (see below for journalists who have used the lists for reporting purposes). The little coverage has been mostly puff pieces, marveling at how duplicate names have led to people who have the same name as celebrities visiting the White House that aren’t actually celebrities themselves. There has been some minor coverage as well, but it’s mostly reporting who is on the list, not necessarily making any claims about the validity of the lists themselves, or investigation what can be done with the information. Not exactly earth-shattering journalism so far…

Stories That Have Used This Research: Although the mainstream news media has covered the release of these records pretty positively overall, reporters, journalists and activists have dug a little deeper into this information. One interesting thing I noted is that a lot of the stories I found using WH visitor logs are from conservative news sources. For example:

- The Washington Examiner did a critical story at the end of February on the fact that President Obama and senior members of his staff have met on at least four occasions with Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, whose organization is the nation’s largest provide of abortion and referrals. The piece was especially crticial because a spokesman for Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) said her boss has not spoken with or visited Obama. The piece goes to list other logs of pro-choice groups/individuals that met with Obama and his advisors to discuss an upcoming WH health care summit and no pro-life groups were invited to participate in the event. To see the full story, click here.

There was another piece written for the Auburn Journal that trolled through the visitor logs to determine that the Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern was the most frequent White House Visitor in 2009. About this they criticized: ”For an administration that promised to renounce interest groups, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) certainly has the president’s ear and is sure to be a major player in the December jobs summit.” Stern visited at least 22 times in 2009.

Liberal sources have also used this data, such as this article from The Huffington Post titled “White House Visitor Logs Show Obama Turned to Business Leaders.” This piece used the visitor logs to show that Obama frequently consulted with leaders of the business and financial communities they were saving from the brink of the financial collapse. The logs showed that Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue visited the White House on ten different occasions, meeting twice with the president, twice with his chief economic consultant, Larry Summers and three times with Obama’s business liaison, Valerie Jarrett. The piece also goes on to report that between January 20 and the end of August (of 2009) lobbyists, strategists and others with a stake in health care reform made 575 visits to the White House. And that’s just the ones that were reported!

The majority of the stories I found that used the data follows a very similar pattern, who met with whom, where, how many times, and speculation as to why, that seems, for the most part, pretty solid. There have also been a few examples of bloggers that have picked up the research and examined it, rather than mainstream media.

Some further questions/musings about these stories. Do they raise the validity of the news stories in each case? Would there have been these kinds of stories without it? How much speculation is involved in terms of what goes on at these meetings?

Other Points of Research

  • Ah, it’s getting  worse! I thought it was 90 days after that visitors were released. Well there are several reports that it’s actually 90-120 days after!
  • It appears 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. This might be the most devastating piece of research I found so far and seriously brings into question the motives behind releasing this data.
  • The data has been known to be released on late Friday afternoons becoming part of the Friday Night News Dump Syndrome!

A Few Points of Growing Frustration: There is no way to tell what’s been censored, what’s been left off due to security concerns. How many names are taken off this list? Is there a clear-cut definition of what is “confidential” and what is not? Not as far as I can tell. And although the list is searchable and downloadable (good things), often the most important piece of information – why the meeting is being held – is left blank. It will often have a very generic description, but it would really help if the list posted the affiliation of the person so as to avoid confusion. You could then also do a search via this field, making it that much easier to find the data you are looking for. Due to the sheer massive amount of names on the list (eg  up to 100,000 have been released at one time), it’s quite difficult to troll through. Which makes the fact that some journalists have used this resources even more impressive. Even if these lists were 100% accurate representations of who visited, when, we still would have a long way in knowing what was discussed, and what influence these meetings had on policy etc. It appears to be just data, and I’m not sure how far that can take us!

I know it’s a lot of information but there is a lot of digging to be done on this issue. Believe it or not I’ve left out some stuff and I hope to include it in my final post. Any thoughts people have before I finish up my research and do a concluding post on Monday would be helpful! Thanks!

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!

Welcome to the White House: Please Sign In

On January 29th, 2010, the White House released – for the first time in history – its visitor records for the previous 90 days. In included more than 75,000 White House Visitors (the 75,000 represented six months worth of visitors) – now the information is released on a monthly basis. It was part of Obama’s commitment to transparency (however, that definition itself is rather unclear).

The full policy of disclosure described on the White House’s blog site here.

At the surface, it appears there are several positive and negatives of such a policy.

Positives:

  • It is unprecedented for a White House to do this and they should be commended
  • The decision to do this was voluntary
  • It’s available online rather than in some dusty basement in Washington D.C. (which goes a long way in making information “public” in the 21st century). You can also download the information which allows for research potential.
  • Not only is it available online, it’s easily searchable and has quite a bit of detailed information such as visitor’s first and last name, meeting room, who they met with and occasionally a description of purpose of the visit.

Negatives:

  • It’s done 90-120 days after the fact. Is there a good explanation for this? Why can’t they do it daily/weekly?
  • The White House still controls the flow of information and acts as a gatekeeper (eg they can remove names for “security concerns” or any other purposes they want).
  • The “description” (eg purpose of the meeting) is often left out, when that’s probably the most important information!
  • Where is the accountability in this process? Is there any? Will it just encourage meetings outside the White House?
  • Who manages this list?
  • What about duplicate names (the White House admitted this themselves that this has been a problem)? Is it searchable according to the member of the White House who called the meeting? If not, why not?

Over the next few weeks of this travalogue I will continue exploring this issue, including delving deeper into the visitor’s lists themselves, and finding out what kind of information can be gleaned from this list. What kind of research can be done around the people who has access to these lists? Can this information be used successfully in mashups for example, to determine for example what visitors made campaign contributions, etc.

I will also examine instances in which the visitor’s list were useful for journalists, bloggers etc, as well as look at cases when they weren’t not used but could have been (and perhaps do some of that research myself if possible). I will also look further into the limitations of this kind of information.

I tried to get a good visualization of what this visitor log looks like, but was having trouble with getting a coherent screen shot that illustrates the user functionality of it. If you’re interested, you can go here to view all the visitors named “Elizabeth” who have been to the White House.

Thanks to everyone who helped me formulate this idea. I really appreciate it!