In Shift From Prior Administrations, White House to Open Visitor List

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 2009

President Obama said Friday he will make public an ongoing list of visitors to the White House, reversing a policy embraced and defended by previous presidents of both parties.

Under the new policy, the names of visitors to the White House, from tourists to business leaders, will be made public for the first time.

Obama's decision opens a window on efforts by some of those visitors to shape policy at the very top of the federal government. But the new rule has notable exceptions, including people who come for "particularly sensitive" meetings such as interviews for top jobs; personal guests of the first family; and visitors whose known presence at the White House would pose a national security risk.

The White House characterized the move as evidence of Obama's commitment to foster "an open and transparent government."

"For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available on an ongoing basis," Obama said in a statement. "We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent administration in history, not only by opening the doors of the White House to more Americans, but by shining a light on the business conducted inside. Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policy-making process."

The policy will take effect Sept. 15, and as soon as December the Obama administration will begin posting online the names of White House visitors from the previous 90 to 120 days. Officials said 70,000 to 100,000 people visit the White House each month.

The policy change comes after lawsuits by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which had sought information from visitor logs dating to the Bush administration.

The four lawsuits were settled Thursday with the White House's promise to make the information public. As part of the settlement, the White House released the names of some visitors to CREW. Among them were health-industry executives who met with Obama administration officials to discuss health-care reform.

Officials also released the names of visitors to the White House under President George W. Bush. Those names included prominent Christian conservative leaders such as James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; the Rev. Jerry Falwell, president of Liberty University; and the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition.

Stephen Payne, a lobbyist who was videotaped by the Times of London allegedly offering meetings with senior Bush administration officials in exchange for large contributions to Bush's presidential library foundation, visited the White House 53 times, according to a tally by CREW.

"The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise. The Bush administration fought tooth and nail to keep secret the identities of those who visited the White House," said Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director.

Open-government groups generally praised the policy shift, but some questioned whether the exemptions are too broad and whether the White House is waiting too long to release the names of visitors.

"Why does the public have to wait as long as four months to find out who has been meeting with the administration?" asked Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The administration could make major decisions within that time frame."

Grifo also called the exemption for people who attend "particularly sensitive" meetings "a huge loophole."

Michael German, of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, offered similar criticism. "While the new policy is commendable, some vaguely worded exceptions to it raise concerns about the potential for abuse in classifying matters under the umbrella of national security," he said.

The White House also released Friday the names of 10 high-level employees who were granted waivers from its strict ethics code in order to join the administration. The waivers allowed the appointees to work on matters that could involve people with whom they had former professional relationships.

The White House says it has granted 16 waivers in making about 1,890 appointments. The administration also has waived three times the ethics pledge against hiring former lobbyists, according to Norm Eisen, the White House ethics adviser.

Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.

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