Congress Takes Aim at White House Openness

Some members claim the White House visitor logs are not useful.

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In September 2009, the White House announced that it would take the unprecedented step of releasing its visitor records on an ongoing basis. Since then, nearly 1.29 million visitor records have been released on the White House website. While the enormous quantity of available information is indisputable, some members of Congress are questioning the quality and completeness of that data.

[See who has been visiting the White House.]

At a Tuesday hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, members accused the administration of failing to live up to its promises of transparency by releasing incomplete visitor records and thereby deliberately obfuscating its dealings with lobbyists. Some representatives pointed to media reports from earlier this year that White House officials have at times met with lobbyists off of White House grounds, in places that do not require visitor information record-keeping, including nearby office buildings and a Caribou Coffee.

Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns, the subcommittee chair, said that "the American people were promised a new era of openness and accountability, and they haven't gotten it." Stearns also added that the release of the logs was not totally voluntary, but was instead part of a settlement that the White House reached with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also known as CREW, after that organization filed suit asking for the release of the logs.

Several holes in the visitor logs are clear. The White House acknowledges that it does not disclose information that might threaten national security, information on particularly sensitive visits like those by potential Supreme Court justices, and personal guests of the first family. Furthermore, an April Center for Public Integrity study showed that less than 1 percent of all visits from the first eight months of the Obama administration have been released. The study additionally showed that some senior officials, like former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, had surprisingly few visits compared to other, more junior staffers.

Three speakers from government watchdog groups provided their perspectives at the hearing, and all expressed their own reservations about the visitor logs.

Tom Fitton, president of the conservative Judicial Watch, was most critical, characterizing the visitor logs as "little more than a data dump full of holes that shield rather than shed light on visitors and their business at the White House." Of the nearly 1.29 million visit records available now, more than two-thirds appear to represent everyday visitors on tours.

CREW Chief Counsel Anne Weismann said that the White House visitor tracking system serves primarily not as a disclosure system but as a White House security system. "Because these records are created to serve the protective function of the Secret Service, they contain only that information the Secret Service needs to ensure no visitor to the White House poses a risk to the safety or security of any of its occupants," said Weisman. She added, "The White House may have oversold what the visitor logs do and do not do."

Though the logs may be imperfect, the White House remains emphatic about the unprecedented nature of its disclosures. White House Associate Communications Director Kate Bedingfield says that the visitor access system protects White House occupants "while imposing the smallest possible administrative burden--and the information contained in the records reflects that," but also adds, "No previous White House has ever adopted such a [disclosure] policy."

White House representation was conspicuously absent from the hearing, a fact that several Republican committee members emphasized, and that New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner also characterized as "wrong." Ranking Member Diana DeGette of Colorado and California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman defended the administration, noting that the committee only gave White House six days' notice of the hearing. A White House official likewise said that the request to testify came too late to allow sufficient preparation time. The official also added that an administration witness was also already testifying at another Oversight Committee hearing this morning, on updating the Presidential Records Act to cover new types of electronic media.