Obama flip flops on transparency

During the campaign, candidate Barack Obama made unambiguous commitments to openness and transparency. But once in office, President Obama has been far more tentative about public disclosure, at times opting to continue Bush administration policies of withholding information.

Obama started off well enough, revoking a Bush executive order restricting public access to records in the presidential libraries and reversing another Bush administration order by ordering federal agencies in dealing with requests for information to err on the side of disclosure. He also ordered a review intended to cut down on the government’s proclivity for over-classifying information as secret.

Since then, however, he has passed up opportunities to make public information that the Bush administration kept secret. The most charitable explanation is that the White House wants to be careful how it proceeds, not wanting to precipitously put in place a disclosure policy it would then find embarrassing to have to withdraw.

Now, the White House is caught up in another such quandary. It has declined to release the White House visitor logs, the records listing everybody who has been cleared into the White House by the Secret Service.

A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is seeking a list of coal-company executives who visited the White House, and msnbc.com is seeking a list of all visitors since the inauguration, Jan. 20.

Although Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said the policy of withholding the logs is under review, the Obama White House in the meantime is taking the same position as the Bush White House: The president is entitled to keep secret the identity of his visitors in order to receive candid, confidential advice.

However, typically in Washington, this policy was imposed for a more pedestrian reason — to avoid political embarrassment. When the influence-peddling scandal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff broke, news organizations and watchdog groups sought to find how often the now-imprisoned Abramoff visited the Bush White House and whom he saw. Normally, this should have been a public record.

The White House then engaged in a bureaucratic shell game with the records. Instead of being agency records, the Secret Service’s, and thus subject to Freedom of Information requests, they were declared presidential records and thus protected from disclosure by executive privilege.

The Obama White House may want to think carefully how it handles this. The Bush administration lost the preliminary rounds of a court challenge and the case is now before a federal appeals court.