On September 3, the Obama administration and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) settled four ongoing cases regarding public access to White House visitor records. As a result, for the first time in history records of White House visitors will be released.
Aside from a small group of appointments that cannot be disclosed because of national security imperatives or their necessarily confidential nature (such as a visit by a possible Supreme Court nominee), the record of every visitor who comes to the White House for an appointment, a tour, or to conduct business will be released. Each month, records of visitors from the previous 90-120 days will be made available online.
The agreement stems from lawsuits CREW filed after the Bush and later the Obama administration refused to provide White House visitor records in response to CREW’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Visitor records are created by the Secret Service as part of its statutory responsibility to protect the president, vice president, their residences, and the White House generally.
In lawsuits for records of visits by Christian conservative leaders and lobbyist Stephen Payne, the Bush administration argued the records were presidential records, not agency records of the Secret Service, and therefore exempt from the FOIA’s mandatory disclosure requirements. U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth disagreed, ruling twice that the records are subject to the FOIA and not within any of the claimed exemptions. The government appealed those decisions to the District of Columbia Circuit Court.
After President Obama took office, CREW sought records of visits to the White House by health care and coal executives to determine the degree of their influence on health care and energy legislative proposals. The government initially refused to turn over these records, but now has agreed to produce them, as well as the Bush era records, as part of the settlement. In turn, CREW has agreed to dismiss all the pending litigation.
“For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis,” said President Obama in a statement released by the White House. “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. Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.”
CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan praised the White House saying, “The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise. The Bush administration fought tooth and nail to keep secret the identities of those who visited the White House. In contrast, the Obama administration – by putting visitor records on the White House web site – will have the most open White House in history.”