White House visitor logs riddled with holes

Obama White House touts its release of more than 1 million visitor logs but what's missing is as important as what's listed

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White House visitor logs are riddled with missing information and trivia.

Emma Schwartz

A foot of snow couldn’t keep Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jennifer Hudson and other celebrities away from a star-studded celebration of civil rights era music hosted by President Barack Obama and the First Lady at the White House on Feb. 9, 2010.

Dylan’s haunting rendition of “The Times They are A-Changin” was a highlight of the dazzling evening. The digitally friendly White House even posted the video of his performance on its website.

But you won’t find Dylan (or Robert Zimmerman, his birth name) listed in the White House visitor logs — the official record of who comes to call at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, maintained by the Secret Service.

Ditto Joan Baez.

The logs are similarly incomplete for thousands of other visitors to the White House, including lobbyists, government employees, campaign donors, policy experts, and friends of the first family, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.

The White House website proudly boasts of making available “over 1,000,000 records of everyone who's come through the doors of the White House” via a searchable database.

Yet the Center’s analysis shows that the logs routinely omit or cloud key details about the identity of visitors, who they met with, the nature of the visit, and even includes the names of people who never showed up. These are critical gaps that raise doubts about their historical accuracy and utility in helping the public understand White House operations from social events to meetings on key policy debates.

“If this is transparency, who needs it?” said Steven Aftergood, director of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. He called the White House visitor logs “very thin gruel.”

A White House official conceded the system has limitations, asserting it was designed not as an archive but “first and foremost to protect the first family, second family and White House staff while imposing the smallest administrative burden possible.”

“The Obama administration has taken unprecedented steps to increase transparency by releasing visitor records from the system each month to provide the American people with more information about their government,” White House spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said.

 “No previous White House has ever adopted such a policy,” she said.

Among the many weaknesses found by the Center’s review of the database:

  • The “event” description in the logs is blank for more than 205,000 visits, including many that involved small meetings with the president and his key aides.
  • Five junior staff aides together received more than 4,440 visits. By contrast, then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, famed for his workaholic schedule, is listed for less than 500 visits.
  • Less than 1 percent of the estimated 500,000 visits to the White House in Obama’s first eight months — a time when the new administration was bustling with activity — have been disclosed, according to the Center’s analysis.
  • The logs include names of people cleared by the Secret Service for White House entry who never showed up. The Center analysis found more than 200,000 visits with no time of arrival, an indication the person didn’t enter the White House though there is no way to know for certain. For instance, actor Ryan Gosling is listed at a West Wing event with members of his band, Dead Man’s Bones, in October 2009. But Gosling’s representative, Carolyn Govers, said the actor did not go.
  • Two-thirds of the more than 1 million names listed are people who passed through parts of the White House on guided group tours.

(The Center’s analysis is based on visitor logs through February; additional names released in late March are not included in this analysis).

The White House agreed to release the data — known as WAVES records, for Workers and Visitors Entry System — only as a result of settling a lawsuit.And the Obama administration has taken the same legal position as its Republican predecessor on the subject of whether the data is covered by the Freedom of Information Act. (They say no.)

This is a live data feed from whitehouse.gov.

Moreover the settlement doesn’t cover visitor records generated between Jan. 20 and Sept. 15, 2009. According to the White House, the recordkeeping system was revamped when the settlement was reached, and going back into the old system would be extremely time-consuming. The administration said it will respond to “reasonable, narrow and specific” requests for visitor information from Obama’s early months in office but there will be no wholesale release of material.

It’s a sizable gap that provides the public and historians little insight about how key policy decisions were made and who played a role in them in the energetic early months of the new administration.

And it means it’s difficult to assess whether a major Obama campaign pledge to limit the influence of lobbyists in his administration has been kept, or if big donors have been given ready access to the White House, which candidate Obama said wouldn’t happen once he took office.

“It pains me to think that there are competent people processing this vast series of records for posting on the web,” Aftergood said. “The overwhelming majority is of no consequence whatsoever.”

Visitor logs cover mostly mundane matters

The records posted on the White House website, though voluminous, cover mostly mundane matters, such as the tours and social events. In all, more than 50,000 names are listed as visiting the president, POTUS in Secret Service parlance. Most were for 600 ceremonial or social gatherings, such as the 2010 Fourth of July celebration attended by more than 3,600 people.

Visits to POTUS by some prominent Americans were made public at the time, such as Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who came by on April 15, 2010 and later that day hitched a ride aboard Air Force One to the Kennedy Space Center. The description in the record lays that out.

But the logs reveal far less about the purpose of nearly half the 300-plus private meetings listed with Obama, including those with politicians and even sports figures. Nearly all these visitors’ names appear a single time, often for a meeting in the Oval Office.

And visitors’ reasons for being at the White House are unclear in many other cases as well. Case in point: Jeffrey Kindler, former chief executive of Pfizer, the world’s biggest drug company, is listed as visiting the complex eight times. Only three log entries describe an event he attended; the rest are blank. (Last month, Obama appointed Kindler to a presidential board with the duty to help the federal government improve its operations.)Kindler did not return calls for comment.

AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka has been logged in at least four dozen times, often with other labor bigwigs, but the records tell why he was there in only 12 of those cases, and those are mostly ceremonial events or busy social functions. Twice last year, Trumka met privately with Obama and once with Vice President Joseph Biden, the records show, but no details are in the logs. The AFL-CIO had no comment.

Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker, Obama’s campaign finance chairman, met with the president on Feb. 16, 2009 in the Oval Office, according to the logs.Several other “bundlers,” who each raised $200,000 or more for the Obama campaign, also met with the president, the visitors’ logs show.

Asked why no details are available, the White House said the Secret Service doesn’t need a description for security purposes and it would be an unnecessary burden to provide it.

In other words, it’s up to the White House staffer being visited, who provides the other information the Secret Service needs for doing background checks on visitors, to decide whether or not to complete the “description” field.

Furthermore, most of the time the names of visitors are released with no additional identification, leaving the public to guess whether an individual named, for instance, William Johnson or John Wilson (each of whom have visited the complex more than four dozen times) is a government employee, and if so, of which agency.

And sometimes the same person is listed two different ways, as in the case of Lewis Sachs, also known as Lee, who was a senior advisor to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner handling the financial crisis.

The Center asked the White House for help identifying some of the names that came up as frequent visitors. A spokesperson said that wouldn’t be possible because the request was too labor intensive.

The White House has at times acknowledged that the sheer volume of unedited records can muddy as much as clarify who visited the White House. In a December 2009 disclosure of 25,000 new records, a William Ayers was noted as a visitor, and the White House sought to make clear it was not the 1960s radical whose relationship to Obama became a campaign controversy.

“The well-known individual with that name has not visited the White House, but we included the record of the individual that did,” said Norm Eisen, special counsel for ethics.

Using assistants further muddles the picture

Another practice calling into question the veracity of the logs: Junior White House staff members routinely list themselves as the “visitee,” or person being visited, when in fact the visitor has arrived to see someone higher up the chain of command.

The practice appears to apply to the commander in chief in some instances.

Reginald Love is recorded as receiving nearly 300 visits in the West Wing of the White House. Love is Obama’s personal assistant, the young aide who is constantly at the president’s side. Celebrities like NBA star Kobe Bryant and some Obama friends are listed as visitors to Love.

As well, nearly two dozen campaign fundraisers and their family members are also listed as visiting Love. The records give no hint as to who else they saw once they entered the White House or the purpose of the meeting. Among them was Hildy Kuryk, a New York fundraiser for Obama who now is deputy national finance director of the Democratic National Committee. Kuryk, her husband and in-laws came by on Saturday morning, Aug. 14, 2010, and checked in to see Love.

Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, is listed for fewer than 500 visitor entries. As a point of reference, health care czar Nancy Ann DeParle showed three times as many visitors. But three young aides who scheduled meetings for Emanuel — Katherine Kochman, Amanda Anderson and Benjamin Milakofsky — collectively had more than 2,600 visits in their names. Emanuel did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked why junior staffers appear so often with top-flight visitors, the White House said administrative staffers are often the point of contact for visitors to senior staff and they receive guests as they arrive.

On the other hand, at times there is an absurd amount of detail for seemingly trivial visits. An example: Jackie Walker, a professional makeup artist, is listed for more than a dozen one-person meetings with Obama. And she made more than two dozen other trips to the White House, visiting assorted aides or press office staff.Walker, who runs makeup and apparel company Trackchicks in Chantilly, Va., told the Center that Obama is a client. She declined further comment.

Another lapse in the White House logs is due to Obama staff who met with people off-site. Politico has reported that some visitors believe Obama aides may intentionally avoid listing them in the logs by steering them to buildings outside the White House complex. Several lobbyists said they believed they were sent to meeting spaces on Jackson Place, just off Lafayette Square and a stone’s throw from the White House, so their names wouldn’t appear in the Secret Service records.

An Obama spokesman denied to Politico there was any such motive for locating the meetings off-site.

Other holes in the data result from broad exceptions in the White House’s disclosure policy for the records. Understandably, the administration won’t make public “records whose release would threaten national security interests,” or private information such as Social Security numbers. Records related to “purely personal guests” of the Obamas or Bidens are also screened out under the policy.

The policy contains no commitment to ever release the names of visitors withheld under the national security exception, and that exception is used broadly. For instance, it’s well-known that someone like Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen visits the White House frequently during a time of war, but the White House will not disclose his visits except for social events. Similarly, the logs list just 21 visits for “Hillary R. Clinton” or “Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Most are social or ceremonial events; seven are described in the logs as “breakfast” at the vice president’s residence.

Also exempted under the disclosure policy are “records related to a small group of particularly sensitive meetings,” which won’t be disclosed until the information is “no longer sensitive.”

Other than the one example given — the visits of potential Supreme Court nominees — it is left open for the White House to decide what might constitute such a meeting. A White House spokesman says that no records have been withheld under this exemption, though it’s worth noting that the only visits by Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, appearing in the records are those that took place after she was confirmed to the Court.

A White House spokesperson, noting that her pre-confirmation visits would have occurred during the disclosure gap in the first eight months of 2009, said that nobody had asked for the dates of those visits, and that they would be disclosed after a request was made. The Center has asked for those records.

Despite the gaps, some analysts with an eye toward history think the Obama administration has made a good first move.

“I think we’re lucky to get what we’re getting,” said Martha Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who writes about White House transitions.

“Would I like more? Yes.”

Legal battle over the logs rages on

Obama was presented with an award last month for his commitment to transparency by several groups that advocate for opening government records. In a small irony, the meeting was closed to the public and press.

Later, one of the participants, Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org, released a statement that said, “During the meeting we acknowledged what has been accomplished and had an open and honest discussion about how much more the administration has to do to turn the president’s commitment into real-world government transparency.”

The entire transparency community was not on board, however. Ann Weissman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said her group “did not support” the award.

“In this administration there remain a lot of barriers to transparency. We were concerned about the message that (the award) would be sending,” she said.

On his first full day in office, Obama issued a much-publicized memosaying that his administration “will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.”

But within weeks, the White House adopted the same stance that George W. Bush had taken on Secret Service logs, maintaining they were presidential records and could be kept under wraps. The administration’s legal machinery went to battle against Freedom of Information Act requests for the data.

So in late summer 2009, it seemed like a promising turn of events when the administration announced that it would make public the visitor logs. Obama claimed, correctly, that no administration has ever provided so much disclosure of who dropped in to see him or others working in the compound.

The White House is careful to call its disclosure system “voluntary.” And it is — even though several court rulings have declared the White House visitor logs are public records subject to FOIA. One important case, covering most of the missing eight months beginning with Obama’s inauguration, is still before a judge.

The recent legal history goes back to the Bush administration and the queries mainly of two groups — CREW, an organization started by Democrats, and the conservative Judicial Watch.

Judicial Watch wanted to know about visits to the White House by GOP super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, later convicted of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion. CREW was interested in visits by prominent religious conservatives and Abramoff. Both groups filed FOIA requests with the Secret Service.

Judicial Watch eventually got the information it was seeking. In that case, said Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton, the Bush administration didn’t deny that FOIA applied. But that stance changed. On May 17, 2006, the White House and the Secret Service finalized a Memorandum of Understanding stating that the visitor logs were presidential records, therefore not the records of any executive-branch agency and not subject to FOIA.

CREW’s FOIA request was denied. The group went to court. Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., has twice ruled in favor of CREW, writing that “visitor records are ‘agency records’ under the FOIA.” The Bush legal team appealed.

Hopes ran high that the new Obama administration, with its stated commitment to transparency, would change course. But it was soon apparent that the administration would continue pressing the appeal of Lamberth’s decisions. And in June 2009, the Secret Service denied FOIA requests from msnbc.com (for all White House visitors since Obama took office) and from CREW (for visits by coal industry executives). That triggered another lawsuit.

CREW sued yet again after its FOIA request for visits by a list of health care industry executives was denied by the administration.

The White House began negotiating a settlement with CREW. The result was the current “voluntary disclosure policy” that is supposed to apply to all records generated post-Sept. 15, 2009, in return for CREW dropping its litigation. CREW’s executive director, Melanie Sloan, has no illusions about the administration’s motivation for settling.

“They take so much credit for this initiative, but really it was about them not wanting an appellate decision saying the records were subject to FOIA,” she said. That would have meant the public had a legal right to them, subject to the standard FOIA exemptions. As it is, the administration can release them on their own terms. In fact, the White House’s disclosure policy even states that “the White House considers these records to be subject to the Presidential Records Act” — not to FOIA.

Judicial Watch, with an eye on all the activity, filed a FOIA request in August 2009 for all visitor records since Obama took office. When the White House continued to take the position that FOIA didn’t apply, the group filed a complaint in court a few months later, on Dec. 7.

 “We thought there were conflicts around the settlement,” said Fitton, because a founder of CREW, Norm Eisen, had moved on to become the administration’s ethics czar and had been a key player in the settlement talks.

Judicial Watch’s case has been reassigned to a new judge, Beryl Howell, who used to be a staffer for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who’s often considered FOIA’s best friend in Congress.

A ruling is pending.

Meanwhile, historians, journalists or members of the public who view the visitor logs cannot count on the accuracy or completeness of the data.  

Asked why Bob Dylan's name was missing from the data more than a year after his appearance at the White House, a spokesperson noted that the disclosure policy contains some exceptions. But she couldn't cite which one, if any, applied in the case of the folk-rock legend.