Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Transparency You Can Believe In

MSNBC - The Obama administration is fighting to block access to names of visitors to the White House, taking up the Bush administration argument that a president doesn't have to reveal who comes calling to influence policy decisions.

Despite President Barack Obama's pledge to introduce a new era of transparency to Washington, and despite two rulings by a federal judge that the records are public, the Secret Service has denied msnbc.com's request for the names of all White House visitors from Jan. 20 to the present. It also denied a narrower request by the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which sought logs of visits by executives of coal companies.

CREW says it will file a lawsuit Tuesday against the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service.

We are deeply disappointed," said CREW attorney Anne L. Weismann, "that the Obama administration is following the same anti-transparency policy as the Bush administration when it comes to White House visitor records. Refusing to let the public know who visits the White House is not the action of a pro-transparency, pro-accountability administration."

Photobucket


Groups that advocate open government have argued that it's vital to know the names of White House visitors, who may have an outsized influence on policy matters. The visitor logs have been released in only a few isolated cases, most notably records of visits by lobbyist Jack Abramoff to the Bush White House, and in the "filegate" investigation of the Clinton White House.

The Obama administration is arguing that the White House visitor logs are presidential records — not Secret Service agency records, which would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The administration ought to be able to hold secret meetings in the White House, "such as an elected official interviewing for an administration position or an ambassador coming for a discussion on issues that would affect international negotiations," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.

These same arguments, made by the Bush administration, were rejected twice by a federal judge. The visitor logs are created by the Secret Service and maintained by the Secret Service, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled in 2007 and again this January. CREW had requested records of visits to the Bush White House, as well as the residence of Vice President Dick Cheney, by leaders of Religious Right organizations.

The Bush administration appealed Lamberth's decision, and the Obama administration has continued to press that appeal.

"It is the government's position," the Secret Service wrote last week to msnbc.com in denying access to the visitor logs, "that the vast majority, if not all, of the records ... are not agency records subject to the FOIA. Rather, these records are records governed by the Presidential Records Act" and "remain under the exclusive legal custody and control of the White Office and the Office of the Vice President. After the resolution of this litigation, we will respond further to your request if necessary."