White House opens up visitor logs

President Obama has pledged that his administration will be "the most open and transparent administration in history." That remains to be seen but he took another significant step in that direction by agreeing to start releasing the names of visitors to the White House and incidentally settling four freedom-of-information lawsuits in the process.

Earlier, he had rescinded Bush administration restrictions on access to presidential archives, released the interrogation memos and ordered federal agencies to err on the side of openness in considering requests for information.

"Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policy-making process," Obama said. That’s true but not all presidents have seen it that way, particularly the last two.

The Bush administration notably fought to keep secret the list of visitors who met with Vice President Cheney on energy policy and number of visits by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, later convicted on corruption charges. The Clintons tried to keep secret Hillary Clinton’s advisers on health care and the names of political donors invited for stays in the Lincoln Bedroom.

The new policy takes effect Sept. 15. Ninety to 120 days after the visits are made, the Secret Service will post the names of the visitors on the White House Web site. The lists will include the length and location of the meetings and the name of the White House official who sponsored it.

There are exceptions for national security, which president spokesman Robert Gibbs promises will not be abused; "purely personal guests" of the Obamas and the Bidens; and for extreme confidentiality and sensitivity, the example given being that of prospective Supreme Court nominees.

The logs probably do not invite casual browsing since the White House receives 70,000 to 100,000 people a month. They will, however, be of interest to lobbyists, opposition researchers, journalists and public interest watchdog groups. It was the persistence of one such group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and its four lawsuits that helped make the logs public.