White House Takes Huge Step Toward Transparency

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Early this morning, the White House took a huge step toward a more transparent government by announcing a historic new policy to voluntarily disclose White House visitor access records.  Each month, records of visitors from the previous 90-120 days will be made available online.

From the President’s statement:

For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis.  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 it.  Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.

Aside from a small group of appointments that cannot be disclosed because of national security imperatives or their necessarily confidential nature (such as a visit by a possible Supreme Court nominee), the record of every visitor who comes to the White House for an appointment, a tour, or to conduct business will be released.  Read the full policy here.

The Administration has also agreed with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) to settle four pending cases requesting specific White House visitor access records, including those dating from the Bush administration (read the transmittal letter here). We have provided CREW with the records relating to their requests….

You can read all the details of this new policy at Norm Eisen’s blog.

There are a couple of important things to note. First, I understand that the president was personally involved in pushing this new policy forward and that generally around the White House there was not a lot of sympathy for this dramatic change.  This is very significant and illustrates a fundamental commitment by this president to the campaign pledges he made toward openness of government.

Second, the White House has given itself wiggle room in that they will exercise discretion in deleting the names of certain visitors — personal friends, national security related meetings, and for some other reasons. We are going to trust them to make the right decisions.  (We don’t need to know, don’t want to know the name of Sascha and Malia’s friends as one example.) One misstep and the good will we are offering them right now goes out the window.

Third, there is a substantial delay in making this information available to the public, 90-120 days. This latter point does give me some considerable pause. I understand that it will take at least 60 days for the Secret Service records to make their way to the White House and then some time to clean the data of personal information like social security numbers and phone numbers, but I would also bet it would be pretty darn easy to design a system that could provide that information on a daily basis. (Why shouldn’t the White House have access to the back end database that the Secret Service uses on a daily basis?) Hopefully, the White House will look into technological fixes for what they now assume will be a manual review and cleansing of the records. Real time, online is the standard to which we should hold all government information. That’s what “public” information means in the 21st century.

That critique aside, this is indeed a historic step. This kind of disclosure pioneered by the White House can keep government strong, keep citizens informed,  provide an opportunity for all of us to monitor at close hand the work of the White House, providing an insurance policy for our citizens against those who want to keep them in the dark.

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  • adam

    Voluntary? Huge step? From my understanding, the Administration lost at least two court cases in which they were ORDERED, by a federal judge, to release the visitor logs. There was nothing “voluntary” about it- they wanted to keep the policy in place, and appealed the decision just like Bush did.

    And historic new policy? This secrecy is only new since Bush. There’s nothing historic about undoing a policy from the last Administration that was contradicting FOIL.

  • Carl Mendenhall

    It looks like more smoke and mirrors. They still CONTROL what they want the public to know. The long delay of posting this is ridiculous, they are using computers after all.