Obama, Like Bush, Criticized for Withholding Visitor Logs; Policy Under Review
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
President Obama has embraced Bush administration justifications for denying public access to White House visitor logs even as advisers say they are reviewing the policy of keeping secret the official record of comings and goings.
In recent days, the Secret Service has rejected requests from two organizations for the logs, which document the West Wing meetings that have helped shape Obama's policies on banking regulation, economic recovery, foreign policy and the auto industry.
Yesterday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration seeking the release of information about the visits of coal company executives. Also yesterday, MSNBC.com reported that its broader request for logs since Jan. 20 had been denied.
"The Obama administration has now taken exactly the same position as the Bush administration," said Anne Weismann, the chief counsel for CREW. "I don't see how you can keep people from knowing who visits the White House and adhere to a policy of openness and transparency."
The prior administration said the logs were presidential records that were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Asked about the issue by reporters, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that the administration's policy regarding the release of the logs is under review.
"Visitor logs have been involved in some litigation dating back to sometime in 2006," Gibbs said. "The White House is reviewing that policy based on some of that litigation." Gibbs declined to say when the review will be completed.
A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the denials were issued in accordance with "historically how visitor logs have been treated." The official said the White House is still examining the CREW lawsuit.
As a candidate, Obama promised to run a more transparent government than his predecessor did. Among his the new moves since taking office are the overturning of a Bush administration executive order that limited public access to presidential records from earlier presidencies; an order to agencies to have a presumption in favor of disclosure; and a "memorandum of transparency" that Obama signed on his first full day in office.
The memo ordered executive agencies to take "specific action" to be more transparent. A White House official noted that the administration has created a Web site for information about the Recovery Act and posts presidential memoranda and executive orders on WhiteHouse.gov.
The White House also agreed to release memorandums detailing the alleged torture of detainees, sparking a heated debate and criticism from former Bush administration officials.
But Obama has also taken the Bush administration position on questions of secrecy, surprising his allies and government watchdogs.
The White House initially decided to support the release of photos of detainee abuse but later reversed course. It also continued the Bush administration's objections to the release of an interview that then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney gave to the FBI during its leak investigation. Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has also moved to dismiss lawsuits seeking White House e-mails from the past several years.