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White House Pushes To Keep Visitor Logs Private

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White House Pushes To Keep Visitor Logs Private


White House Pushes To Keep Visitor Logs Private

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Here in Washington President Obama promised to bring a new era of openness and transparency to the White House. That pledge was meant to draw a contrast to the Bush administration which had a reputation for keeping some secrets. But less than six months into the Obama presidency, there are already battles over what information should be made public including a fight over whether the public should see the logs the Secret Service keeps of visitors to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

GONYEA: It was a recurring theme of the Obama campaign last year, a call for openness.

President BARACK OBAMA: Transparency and accountability getting the American people involved, that's how we're going to bring about change.

GONYEA: And it continued on Mr. Obama's first full day as president.

President OBAMA: 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.

GONYEA: But for advocates of open government, this new era of openness has yet to dawn.

Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Executive Director, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington): Once all the pretty speeches were over in the first couple of days, the record now isn't quite so great.

GONYEA: That's Melanie Sloan, executive director of the non-partisan watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also known s CREW.

She's concerned about several early decisions regarding the release of documents and other information by the Obama White House. CREW 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's similar to a lawsuit the Bush administration fought off unsuccessfully a few years back. This year, CREW asked for the records again, citing the Freedom of Information Act.

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

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

Secretary ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): I think there are obviously occasions in which the president is going to meet privately with advisors on topics that are of great national importance, yes.

GONYEA: But, Gibbs said, the policy regarding visitor logs is currently under review. This 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 this debate closely, and with some sense of vindication.

Mr. ARI FLEISCHER (Former White House Press Secretary): As a candidate you can make the easy call and say I'll do it. As a president, it's a good thing, I think, that he's thinking twice on some of these things.

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

For these things, Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, another open government advocacy group, says the Obama administration deserves real credit.

Ms. ELLEN MILLER (Sunlight Foundation): I think 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. Time, of course, 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've seen in modern history.

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

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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