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White House Visitor Logs and Lack of Transparency in the Obama Administration

Rating: Mountain (issue somewhat resolved)

The Charge

Before reversing course in September 2009, President Obama's administration withheld White House visitor logs from public disclosure on multiple occasions since taking office in January 2009. On June 16, 2009, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a non-profit watchdog group, sued the Department of Homeland Security because the Secret Service refused to provide CREW with the White House visitor logs that CREW requested through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.1  FOIA allows public citizens to request previously undisclosed information from the government; the act defines what information the government must disclose. CREW was attempting to obtain records of visits by coal executives in order to analyze whether these executives influenced the administration's energy policy.2  

In a similar FOIA request, CREW asked the Secret Service for information about White House visits by 18 health care executives.3  Initially, the request was denied, but after CREW threatened to sue the administration once more, President Obama "decided to exercise his discretion" and release some information about the meetings.4  However, the information given to CREW did not include all of the information required by FOIA.5  Investigative reporter Bill Dedman was also denied when he requested the names of all visitors to the White House beginning on January 20, 2009.6

Despite assurances that the administration would create an "unprecedented level of openness in government,"7  the administration justified its actions by stating that the White House visitor logs are exempt from public disclosure laws and that the logs are protected by presidential communications privileges. The Obama administration used the same argument made by the Bush administration to justify its lack of transparency; the Obama administration insists that the White House visitor logs are presidential records, not executive agency records, and therefore not subject to FOIA.8   However, a U.S. district court judge has previously ruled that the White House logs are agency records subject to FOIA.9

On September 4, 2009, the White House changed course and announced that they would voluntarily release records of White House visitor meetings beginning September 15, 2009;10  because of the new policy, CREW settled their outstanding lawsuits with the administration.11   The White House will release 3 to 4 month old records on a monthly basis.12  The administration will not release records "related to a small group of particularly sensitive meetings," such as meeting with Supreme Court nominees, but the administration will state how many "sensitive" meetings being withheld from release.13  Personal visits to the presidential and vice-presidential families will also be undisclosed.  The policy states that the White House continues to consider the meeting records presidential records.14

Was it political interference in science?

Yes and No. While the controversy did not directly involve political interference in science, the Obama administration was not complying with public disclosure laws, nor was the administration fulfilling its promises of transparency and openness. An open and transparent government is the best safeguard against abuse of science. 

What is the best way to ensure scientific integrity?

UCS calls on all federal agencies to follow the White House's lead and make public information about meetings with outside entities.  President Obama needs to extend the policy throughout the administration. Many meetings between agency heads and outside entities could be publicly disclosed within a shorter time frame than 3 to 4 months with little to no burden on agency staff.

For more analysis of scientific integrity charges against the Obama administration, see the Mountain or Molehill feature.

  1. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. 2009a. "CREW Sues Secret Service Over Refusal to Release White House Coal Exec Visitor Logs." June 16.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. 2009b. "White House Response to CREW Suit for Health Care Execs Visitor Records Insufficient." July 22.
  4. Craig, G.B. 2009. Letter to Anne Weismann, attorney for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). July 22.
  5. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington 2009b.
  6. Dedman, B. 2009. "Obama blocks list of visitors to White House: Taking Bush's position, administration denies request for logs." June 16.
  7. The President of the United States, Barack Obama. 2009. "Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies: Transparency and Open Government."
  8. Ulmer, C.W., Special Agent in Charge, Freedom of Information & Privacy Acts Officer in the Dept. of Homeland Security. 2009. Letter to Anne Weisman, attorney for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). June 8.
  9. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington 2009a.
  10. The White House Office of the Press Secretary. 2009. "Statement from the President on the First Time Disclosure Policy for White House Visitor Logs." September 4.
  11. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). 2009c. "CREW and Obama Administration Reach Historic Legal Settlement – White House to Post Visitor Records Online." September 4.
  12. The White House. 2009. "White House Voluntary Disclosure Policy Visitor Access Records."
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.


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