On White House visitor list, Obama’s 'transparency' is murky

Critics say the president is acting like Bush by preventing visitor logs from becoming public.

Larry Downing/Reuters
President Obama speaks to the press at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden in Washington Friday. His administration has blocked access to White House visitor logs.

When Barack Obama took office, he promised the most transparent presidency in history. His White House web site still displays the memorandum, signed the day after inauguration, committing his administration “to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

But by now, it has become a cliché that when push comes to shove, the Obama White House behaves an awful lot like the Bush White House.

The latest flap is over visitor logs at the White House. The Obama administration is keeping secret, for now, the names of people who have visited the White House – though press secretary Robert Gibbs says that policy is under review.

The nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking release of visitor logs that would reveal visits by executives of coal companies. In a statement, CREW says it is trying to learn “the extent to which these individuals may have influenced the administration’s energy policy.”

MSNBC announced today that it had been turned down in a broader request for the names of all visitors to the White House since Jan. 20.

Specifically, CREW’s complaint was filed against the Department of Homeland Security, based on the Secret Service’s refusal to release the visitor records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“Taking the exact same position as the Bush administration, the Obama administration claimed the records are presidential, not agency records, and otherwise exempt in their entirety because of the possibility in some instances they could reveal information protected by the presidential communications privilege,” CREW stated. “In prior litigation, US District Court Judge Royce Lamberth agreed with CREW that the records are agency records that must be disclosed under the FOIA.”

In his briefing on Tuesday, Mr. Gibbs declined to say when the White House Counsel’s office would finish its review. But he did note that the precedents of past administrations would be a factor.

“This is not a contest between this administration or that administration or any administration,” he said. “It’s to uphold the principle of open government.”

Obama has scored some points for openness since taking office. He released the so-called “torture memos” – the Bush-era guidance laying out which interrogation techniques could be used on terrorism suspects – over the objections of CIA Director Leon Panetta. But Obama changed his mind over the release of photographs depicting the abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, after initially saying he would comply with a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In addition to the question of whether to release visitor logs, the White House counsel’s office is also reviewing the practice of protecting state secrets during trials.

In one of the biggest secrecy cases of the Bush years, Vice President Dick Cheney won his court battle to maintain the secrecy of records related to his Energy Task Force.

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