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Transparency? White House still keeps visitors secret

Posted By Drew Zahn On 02/26/2010 @ 6:40 pm In Front Page | Comments Disabled

The Obama administration boasts of an “unprecedented” transparency in releasing lists of White House visitors – except when the names are politically inconvenient, argues a Washington watchdog group, and except for nearly eight months worth of records, which remain locked away despite multiple legal attempts to pry them loose.

“Not literally, but in the mood of their approach, the administration has said, ‘We’ll release what we want, when we want,’” claims Chris Farrell, director of research and investigation for Judicial Watch. “When it’s convenient, they laud themselves as masters of transparency – except when they don’t want to be.”

Judicial Watch, a nonpartisan, political watchdog group, first began seeking public disclosure of White House visitors 15 years ago. Through multiple legal victories, Judicial Watch uncovered records of Monica Lewinsky’s visits during the Clinton administration and of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s visits during the Bush years.

Get the book that chronicles the founder of Judicial Watch’s ongoing fight against government corruption, “WHORES: Why and How I Came to Fight the Establishment”

Thus far, however, the Obama White House has stonewalled Judicial Watch’s efforts.

“When you go back 15 years, and you have claims that certain persons were and weren’t visiting – in the case of the Clintons, it was Communist Chinese generals, with Bush it was Jack Abramoff – we thought the American public had right to know what was going on,” Farrell told WND. “With Obama, we believe the records should also be made public. This current, self-congratulatory ‘transparency’ is disingenuous.”

In August of last year, Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the White House visitor logs from Obama’s first day in office until the present.

The request, however, was denied by a Department of Homeland Security letter that contended, “It is the government’s position that the categories of records that you requested are not agency records subject to the FOIA. Rather, these records are governed by the Presidential Records Act … and remain under the exclusive legal custody and control of the White House.”

“The Obama administration is trying to evade the Freedom of Information Act in order to protect its hidden Secret Service visitor logs,” responded Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in a statement. “Instead of wasting taxpayer resources stonewalling the release of these documents, the Obama administration should respect the rule of law, as well as court precedent, and release all logs of White House visitors immediately. These hidden visitor logs again show the ‘big lie’ of Obama’s supposed commitment to transparency.”

Previous administrations attempted the argument, Judicial Watch points out, but the courts have consistently overruled the White House and required release of the information. So after appealing to the Obama administration – and receiving another rejection – Judicial Watch filed suit.

“At issue here is whether Secret Service visitor logs are agency records subject to the Freedom of Information Act,” states a motion in the case filed earlier this week. “To date, every court that has reached this issue has concluded that the requested documents are agency records and must be processed in response to a properly submitted FOIA request.”

To back it’s case, Judicial Watch even referenced nearly identical cases won against the White House by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group co-founded by the current administration’s ethics czar, Norm Eisen.

Notably, when CREW launched the same type of lawsuit against the Obama administration last year, it settled the case out of court, and Eisen then penned the announcement of a new White House policy governing visitor logs.

The White House website trumpets its online posting of visitor logs by quoting a statement released by President Obama:

“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,” Obama said. “Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.”

Indeed, the website does list tens of thousands of visits to the White House.

Careful reading of the actual voluntary disclosure policy, however, reveals that there are several types of visits that are purposefully not being made public, including:

  • Records whose release would threaten national security interests
  • Purely personal guests of the first and second families
  • Records related to “a small group of particularly sensitive meetings”
  • All records from Obama’s first several months in office, from Jan. 20, 2009, through Sept. 15, 2009.

And while Judicial Watch concedes some visits – particularly those that would threaten national security – need to be withheld, it takes particular exception to nearly eight months of missing records and the administration’s contention that it doesn’t have to release records of “sensitive meetings.”

“It’s quite clear that FOIA allows nine exemptions, and one is properly classified information,” Farrell told WND. “Very often it is properly classified and should be withheld. But the White House’s refusal to abide by the letter of law, arbitrarily or capriciously carving out their interpretation of their exceptions – what they will abide by or not – is an arrogant position. It leaves holes, inconsistency. Why that date? Why is that person left out?

“There are instances where someone’s appearance or arrival would be politically awkward or inconvenient, and no exemption exists for the politically embarrassing,” he continues. “During the Clinton administration, the logs showed Monica Lewinsky going in and out; and we don’t know, based on the Obama administration’s ‘exceptions,’ if the shoe was on other foot, they might never release that. Who knows who’s going in and out?”

Judicial Watch’s current motion, for partial summary judgment demanding the records be processed in accordance with the FOIA request, has been filed with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.



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