The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, June 22, 2009

Who's That Knocking at Our Door?

Classifying the White House Visitor’s Log Is as Potentially Dangerous as It Is Foolish

A week ago, I complained that a decision by the federal government to stop sharing data with astronomers on mid-air exploding asteroids collected by spy satellites was emblematic of the Obama Administration’s troubling failure to translate general promises of greater transparency into specific actions. I maintained it was a particularly troubling development because it did not represent the continuation/defense of a Bush-era policy but was a new example of denying information in the name of national security.

Several readers agreed with me but pointed out the U.S. military had made the decision, perhaps without the Obama Administration’s approval or even its knowledge.

Now I am back with another troubling failure at transparency. Although it represents a continuation of past policies, it is definitely occurring with the President’s full knowledge and tacit approval.

The Secret Service has long maintained logs of all visitors to the White House. Although these logs traditionally remain private, the White House has opened them up in a few extreme cases of law suits/scandals involving public officials. The Bush White House was the first Administration in history to argue in court that it had the right to keep these logs secret. The Obama Administration is now following its example.

Back in 2006, a nonpartisan watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sought to learn if nine religious right leaders had visited the White House and Vice-President’s residence. The Bush Administration rejected their request, arguing the White House, not the Secret Service, owned the logs and thus the Presidential Records Act, rather than the Freedom of Information Act, governed the logs.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, appointed to the bench by former President Reagan, rejected the Bush Administration’s position in December 2007, ruling the Secret Service created and maintained the logs. Judge Lamberth ordered the White House to hand over the logs within twenty days but the Bush Administration simply ignored the order.

Finally, in September 2008, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, announced its refusal to release any visitor logs, claiming Presidential communication privilege protected them. They argued the White House needed to hold secret meeting, such as interviewing perspective candidates for Administration positions or negotiating with foreign ambassadors. They further argued that divulging the identities of those giving advice to the President might cause them to amend their advice or withhold it altogether.

Judge Lamberth shot down this line of reasoning as well in January 2009, maintaining that a simple list of visitors is not a communication at all because it includes no details on the topics discussed during a meeting. The Bush Administration filed an appeal against this decision during its last week in office. So far, the Obama Administration has continued to pursue the appeal.

Since then, MSNBC has requested the names of all White House visitors from January 20 to the present. CREW has also filed another request, this time seeking any visits by executives of coal companies. The Secret Service denied by requests, sending CREW back to court.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Obama Administration is following the same anti-transparency policy as the Bush Administration when it comes to White House visitor records,” said CREW’s attorney. “Refusing to let the public know who visits the White House is not the action of a pro-transparency, pro-accountability Administration.”

The Obama Administration subsequently announced its visitor’s log policy was under reviews by the White House Counsel's Office and “other people in the Administration.” It provided no timetable for the review’s completion.

White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs insisted on President Obama’s commitment to transparency, pointing to an executive order signed by the President on his first day in office – an order that forbids every other administrator in the Executive Branch to do what Obama is doing here.

This policy is as potentially dangerous as it is foolish. While national security reasons may occasionally require a short but reasonable delay in releasing some visitor information, the arguments made here are the same ones that allowed former Vice-President Cheney to construct U.S. energy policy with the heads of Big Oil. As many rightfully condemned the practice at that time, so we should condemn it now as well under Obama.

At the conclusion of his first day in the White House, President John Adams penned a letter to his wife Abigail that included a short prayer, since chiseled into the marble mantelpiece of the State Dining Room.

I pray Heaven
to bestow the best blessings
on this house and all
that shall hereafter inhabit it.

May none but
honest and wise men
ever rule under this roof.

Despite its sexist bent, surely all share in Adams’s hope for nothing but conscientious leaders and we may extend his sentiments to nothing but conscientious visitors as well. However, until the better angels of human nature prevail, accountability is the people’s greatest defense against those less than “honest and wise” and that comes best with transparency, as Obama himself has often noted.

To advise a leader is an honor-filled but also potentially perilous position, as enacted policy may reveal some aspects of one’s counsel. Yet those who would refuse counsel out of fear of reprisal have no business advising the leader of a democracy. The same is even truer for those who wish to speak one type of admired rhetoric in public and save less popular words for behind closed doors.

Likewise, I can sympathize with the privacy intrusions suffered by Bush, Obama, or any who have held the office of Presidency. It must be difficult when your very home is little better than a fishbowl. But I nonetheless insist on openness because while it is the Presidents’ home and residence during their four year terms, it remains my house and the house of every U.S. citizen and we have both the right and an obligation to ascertain who walks its rooms and for what purposes.

When someone comes knocking on the White House door, all of us need answer the summons. Obama does a disservice to himself and the rest of us by blocking our view in the name of national security or, worse, potential personal embarrassment. Now transparency itself is knocking. Will we answer its summons?

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