The Obama administration says it will release names of most visitors to the White House, starting at the end of this year. Information on visitors in the first eight months of his administration will remain secret.
The White House called the release of information "voluntary," continuing to argue the Bush administration's position that full disclosure is not required by the Freedom of Information Act.
After being sued twice by a nonprofit organization seeking the records, the Obama administration said Friday it will post the visitor logs online. The release will be time delayed, with 90 to 120 days passing before the records are posted on the White House Web site. And only visits after Sept. 15, 2009, will be revealed.
The White House also said that certain "sensitive" visits, such as those by potential Supreme Court nominees, will not be revealed. Also hidden will be personal visits to the Obama and Biden families, and security information such as the arrival times of White House staff.
"We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent administration in history," President Barack Obama said on Friday.
The nonprofit, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it was dropping its two lawsuits against Obama, and two previous lawsuits filed during the presidency of George W. Bush.
In addition to the CREW requests, msnbc.com had sought records on all White House visitors. That request, for all visitors since Inauguration Day, still stands, and msnbc.com has filed an administrative appeal with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service. The new White House policy says it will consider requests for visitor information for the period from Jan. 20 to Sept. 15, but only if the requests are narrow and include specific names to be checked; in other words, if you don't know who visited, or can't guess who might have visited during this period, the White House won't tell you.
A federal district court has ruled twice that all visitor records belong to the United States Secret Service, and therefore should be open under the Freedom of Information Act.
CREW said it was satisfied with the White House response. CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a prepared statement, "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."
Below is a timeline of the issue. A box on this page contains the original documents. More background on the White House visitor logs is detailed in two previous articles, "Obama blocks access to White House visitor logs," and "After lawsuit, Obama opens a bit of info on meetings with health care executives."
In May 2006, the Bush White House signed a memorandum of understanding with the Secret Service, declaring that the visitor logs were White House records, not agency records, and therefore not subject to disclosure.
On Oct. 4, 2006, CREW requested information on visits by nine leaders of the religious right to the Bush White House and to the residence of Vice President Dick Cheney.
On Dec. 17, 2007, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that the records must be released. He rejected the Bush argument that the records belonged to the White House, not the Secret Service. The Freedom of Information Act does not cover the White House. The court ordered the Department of Homeland Security to release the records.
On Jan. 9, 2009, Lamberth rejected a second Bush claim, that the records were protected as presidential communications. Lamberth said the mere listing of the date and time of a meeting was unlikely to reveal the content of any White House communication. The court ordered the Department of Homeland Security to release the records. The court also ruled that the government violated the Federal Records Act by deleting some of the Bush and Cheney visitor logs.
On Jan. 14, 2009, with one week remaining in his administration, Bush appealed.
On Feb. 3, 2009, in response to a request by msnbc.com, the Obama White House said it was reviewing its policy. It said it was trying to balance transparency with security.
On May 14, 2009, the Department of Justice continued to argue against release of the records, restating the Bush position that Lamberth had ruled in error.
On June 8, 2009, the United States Secret Service denied requests by msnbc.com and the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The news organization sought logs of all visitors to the Obama White House beginning on Inauguration Day. CREW's narrower request sought information on visits by coal industry executives. The Secret Service restated the Bush position.
On June 16, 2009, CREW sued the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, for the coal industry records.
On July 7, 2009, the Secret Service denied a CREW request for logs of visits by 18 health care executives, including the heads of the largest medical, insurance and pharmaceutical companies and trade groups. Again the Service restated the Bush position.
On July 22, 2009, hours before the president's televised news conference on health care reform, CREW sued for the health industry visitor logs. The White House, an hour before the news conference, released the dates of visits by the 18 executives. This wasn't all the information that the logs contain, but it allowed the Justice Department to contend to the judge that the CREW case was moot. In conversations with reporters, the White House emphasized that the policy was under review, without mentioning that it had been under review for more than five months. And it emphasized that it was disclosing the information, without mentioning that the visitor logs also would show which White House employee requested the meeting, how long the person was at the White House, and other details.
That same night, in his news conference, the president said that the White House had already made public information on the health industry visitrs to the White House. Obama said, ""On the list of health care executives who visited us, most of time you guys have been in there taking pictures, so it hasn't been a secret. And my understanding is we just sent a letter out providing a full list of all the executives. But, frankly, these have mostly been at least photo sprays where you could see who was participating."
On July 25, 2009, an article by Sharon Theimer of the Associated Press documented that the president's statement was a stretch: "Despite President Barack Obama's promise of transparency on his health care overhaul, few White House meetings with medical industry representatives on a list recently released by his administration were made public at the time, an Associated Press review found. ... An AP review of White House activities on those dates found that the majority of the visits occurred without an announcement that the executives were there."
During the presidential campaign, Obama promised several times to open up records of lobbying, including a promise to "Make White House Communications Public: Obama will amend executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside the government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public."