White House Pushes To Keep Visitor Logs Private

by Don Gonyea

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Morning Edition, July 1, 2009 · It was a recurring theme of Barack Obama's presidential campaign — a call for openness: "Transparency and accountability, getting the American people involved, that's how we're gonna bring about change," candidate Obama said.

And the theme continued on Obama's first day as president: "Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known."

But for advocates of open government, the new era of openness has yet to dawn.

"Once all the pretty speeches were over in the first couple of days, the record now isn't quite so great," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Sloan is concerned about several early decisions regarding the release of documents and other information by the Obama White House. Her organization is suing for the release of Secret Service logs that would reveal which representatives from the coal industry visited the White House as the administration was preparing clean air policy.

It is similar to a lawsuit the Bush administration fought a few years back. This year, Sloan's organization asked for records again, citing the Freedom of Information Act.

"Not only did the administration refuse to provide those records, we have sued them, and ... they are making the same argument that the Bush administration did, that these are presidential records, even though this argument has already lost in court," Sloan said.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was recently asked about the White House visitor logs during his daily briefing.

"I think there are obviously occasions in which the president is going to meet privately with advisers on topics that are of great national importance," Gibbs answered.

He added that the policy regarding visitor logs is currently under review. That is just one of several issues on which the Obama administration has frustrated open government advocates. Some others include a decision not to release more photos documenting the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer has been watching the debate closely, and with some sense of vindication.

"As a candidate, you can make the easy call and say 'I'll do it,' " Fleischer said. "As a president, it's a good thing that he's thinking twice on some of these things."

A spokesman for Obama says the administration has made major changes in terms of providing more transparency by ordering that Freedom of Information Act requests be regarded with a presumption of disclosure. The administration also has set up a number of Web sites allowing the public to track government programs, funding for them and the funds they pay out.

"What the administration is beginning to deliver is an openness when it comes to a certain level of White House deliberations and with respect to government data," said Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group. "Time will tell how this all plays out, but even in the first six months of the administration, we're seeing far more openness than we have seen in modern history."

The administration is learning that the campaign established a certain level of expectation that has not been met, and that insisting on having the most open administration ever is a far cry from achieving it.

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