Window on White House visitor records beginning to clear

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by Jessica Pearce

By the end of November, nearly 2,100 records of visitors to the White House recorded between January 20, 2009 and September 15, 2009 were publicly released by the Administration in a searchable online database. Although this is only a fraction of the total visitors during that time — up to 100,000 people visit the White House each month — in the future, we will see a much fuller picture.

Since September, the Obama administration’s policy has been to release records only if (1) specifically requested and (2) deemed by the Administration as “reasonable, narrow and specific” enough to release. Since then, more than 400 requests have been submitted to the White House, resulting in releases of two batches of visitor logs: nearly 500 in October and more than 1,600 in November.

President Obama has promised to release the full logs, albeit delayed 90-120 days to “allow the White House to continue to conduct business.” In addition, certain visitors’ names will not be released because of national security, political sensitivity, privacy, or other concerns.

Initially, the Administration had refused to release the logs when requested by MSNBC and Citizen for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), asserting (like the Bush administration) that the records were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. CREW sued for access to the records in July, dropping the suit once the government agreed to turn over the records under a new “voluntary” disclosure program, which took effect on Sept. 15.

While the disclosure policy is not retroactive — records prior to September 15 are available only upon request — all records after that date will be released three months after the visit. We can expect a much clearer view of visitors to the White House starting around the end of December.

Hopefully, the Administration will minimize the number of instances where it fails to disclose names, perhaps by reviewing the redactions every six months and releasing additional names. It should also reconsider and publish all visitor logs from earlier this year. Doing so could make available tens of thousands of records.

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