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During his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama talked about the importance of restoring trust in government.
To close the credibility gap, Obama said, "we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; and to give our people the government they deserve."
"That's why, for the first time in history, my administration posts our White House visitors online," he said.
We've been looking into the question of White House visitor logs. It's true that the Obama administration is releasing more information on White House visitors than any previous administration and posting those details to the Web.
But the story is more complicated than that. And as we've noted before with this administration, you have to read the fine print because it includes some loopholes.
When Obama first took office, the administration did not immediately release information on White House visitors, and it refused records requests from the news Web site msnbc.com and the advocacy organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. CREW filed suit for the records in July 2009, and by September, the White House announced its intention to release some of the logs in a settlement with CREW.
Starting Sept. 15, 2009, the White House said it would release records of all visitors, but the records would be released 90 to 120 days after the visits occurred. But the administration outlined a series of exceptions for records that would not be released:
• personal information such as dates of birth, Social Security numbers or phone numbers
• information that would be of concern to law enforcement or a threat to national security interests
• personal guests of the president and vice president and their families ("i.e., visits that do not involve any official or political business")
• records related to a "small group of particularly sensitive meetings (e.g., visits of potential Supreme Court nominees). The White House will disclose each month the number of records withheld on this basis, and it will release such records once they are no longer sensitive."
It's that last point that stuck out to us. They'll release all the records unless the record is "particularly sensitive." That seems like a standard that can encompass an awful lot.
CREW first filed suit against the Bush administration in 2006 for the White House visitor logs. Because White House records are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the group argued that they belonged to the Secret Service and could be released under FOIA. A federal judge agreed with CREW in 2007, but left the records sealed pending appeal. The settlement with the Obama administration stopped that process.
CREW says it still believes that the records are subject to FOIA but that it chose to settle because "the administration agreed to go much farther than we had asked in court: rather than just providing documents about specific visits upon request, the administration is posting the records of nearly all White House visitors," according to an e-mail to PolitiFact from CREW executive director Melanie Sloan.
It's worth noting CREW's founder was Norm Eisen, who now is Obama's special counsel for ethics and government reform. He joined the administration in January 2009 and wrote the blog post announcing the new records policy.
Judicial Watch, a conservative-leaning organization that has sued both Democratic and Republican administrations, isn't satisfied with the settlement and has filed suit to force the release of all the logs.
"The problem with these exemptions is that they're just exemptions that (the White House is) making up," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. "By their own admission, they're not releasing everything."
Some open government organizations have nevertheless praised the administration's move. It's a "huge step toward a more transparent government," said Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, writing on the group's Web site. Mentioning the exemptions, she said, "We are going to trust them to make the right decisions. ... One misstep and the goodwill we are offering them right now goes out the window."
So far, the White House has released one month of visitor logs. An Obama administration spokesman said that so far, it has not withheld any records for political sensitivity. A few records are still being processed for national security concerns, according to the White House Web site.
Getting back to Obama's statement, he said, "For the first time in history, my administration posts our White House visitors online." He's right that the release was unprecedented -- there is no dispute that the Obama administration has released more information from the logs than any previous administration. But there is still a gap for roughly the first nine months that Obama was in office. And the administration has given itself a significant loophole with the exemption for sensitivity, especially given that there's already a substantial delay built into the release.
So while he's opened the records and earned praise from open-government advocates, it's not quite as sweeping as he suggests. We find his claim Mostly True.
The White House, State of the Union address, Jan. 27, 2010
White House Web site, White House Voluntary Disclosure Policy Visitor Access Records
White House Web site, President Obama Vows to Continue Standing Up to the Special Interests on Behalf of the American People, Jan. 23, 2010
Sunlight Foundation, White House Takes Huge Step Toward Transparency, Sept. 4, 2009
White House Web site, Opening up the people's house, Sept. 4, 2009
White House Web site, Visitor records
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, press release, July 22, 2009
msnbc.com, Group sues for Obama White House visitor list, Dec. 9, 2009
msnbc.com, Obama yields on most White House visitor logs, Sept. 4, 2009
Judicial Watch, Judicial Watch Files Lawsuit against Obama Administration to Obtain White House Visitor Logs, Dec. 8, 2009
Interview with Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch
Interview with Bill Dedman of msnbc.com
PolitiFact.com, Promise No. 240: Tougher rules against revolving door for lobbyists and former officials
PolitiFact.com, Promise No. 237: Make White House communications public
The New York Times, Records Kept Secret Pending Appeal, Dec. 27, 2007
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington vs. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, judge's order, Dec. 17, 2009, accessed via PACER
National Journal, CREW Founder to Head Ethics for Obama, Jan. 28, 2009
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW and Obama reach historic legal settlement - White House to post visitor records online, Sept. 4, 2009
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