Guess Who?

Wash Times highlights limits of Obama visitor disclosure policy

Yesterday, The Washington Times reported some none-too-flattering revelations suggesting a pay-to-play scheme inside the Obama White House.

According to documents acquired by the Times, donors who raise more than $300,000 for Democratic campaigns are rewarded with participation in bimonthly phone calls with senior administration officials, along with occasional face to face meetings and briefings. Matthew Mosk, the article’s author, did a good job of documenting times where major Obama donors and bundlers had received invitations to White House events—especially considering that a request he made for the visitor records of forty-five top fundraisers remains unfilled.

The White House has been doing its best to claim that there’s nothing to see here, pointing out that they plan to begin regularly releasing visitor records, which could detail donor visits, in just a few weeks. The promised disclosures come after a string of court battles over whether the records qualify as Secret Service records, which are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, or as presidential records, which are exempt.

But press secretary Robert Gibbs misrepresented the facts in his press briefing yesterday, when he claimed that “Every name of every person that comes to this White House will be released.”

The White House’s policy on the release of records contains at least three exemptions.

And unless the administration is planning to never make use of them, what Gibbs said just isn’t true.

Under the terms of the record-release policy, the White House can withhold records that could “threaten national security interests,” “records related to purely personal guests of the first and second families,” and “records related to a small group of particularly sensitive meetings”—like Supreme Court nominees.

For that last category, the “particularly sensitive meetings,” the White House promises to publicly tally the number of meetings from which visitor records are withheld—a step which might prevent an overly liberal withholding policy. (The administration also promises to release those records “once they are no longer sensitive.” Just what that means, we’ll have to wait and see.)

The White House has said nothing about tallying or eventually releasing the records it withholds under the personal visit or national security categories. If the administration decides that a visit falls under either label, they have no plans of ever letting the public know a thing about it.

The White House’s policy says that only personal “visits that do not involve any official or political business” will qualify to be excluded.

Yesterday, in response to Mosk’s article, Dan Pfeiffer, the White House’s deputy communications director, provided a statement to The Washington Times. Here’s a particularly relevant portion:

“Many of the people mentioned in this story have been friends and associates of the Obamas for decades—including college roommates and family friends whose relationships predate and are separate from the President’s career in public service.”

So would visits from major donors who happen to have relationships that “predate and are separate” from politics ever make it on to the release list? If the White House truly regards their visits as “separate” from the president’s job, maybe not. What about the case of a presidential “friend” who earned his way into the president’s heart through his wallet, and is granted a White House visit that itself does not “involve any official or political business”—even if it was only granted or arranged for political reasons? Would such a visit be disclosed? Again, maybe not.

As those questions get sorted out, it’s worth noting that the White House has gone to pains to emphasize that it has only agreed to release the information voluntarily—meaning that neither the policy’s application nor the fine points of its language will be subject to court review. While both the Bush and Obama White Houses faced lawsuits attempting to compel disclosure of visitor logs under FOIA—and lost them three times at the federal district court level—the question remained on appeal at the time the new policy was announced last month. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which waged many of the key lawsuits, agreed to drop its cases in wake of the administration’s discretionary policy. While questionable application of the policy could draw a new suit on the question of whether the records are under FOIA’s jurisdiction, there is nothing to stop this or any future administration from modifying, ignoring, maliciously misinterpreting, or dropping the visitor disclosure policy at will.

“It’s up to them to live by their agreement,” Mosk told CJR.

While the White House has promised to release the first batch of visitor records from September 15 to October 15, minus withholdings, by late December, plans for a full release of visitor records between the inauguration and mid-September are, at best, vague at this point. (Judicial Watch is threatening to sue over the issue.)

The White House maintains a Web form where anyone can submit a request for visitor information from this eight-month period, for up to ten people at a time. After initially sending a letter requesting visitor records for the president’s top forty-five bundlers to White House counsel Gregory Craig on September 25, Mosk was told to submit the requests online, which he did in early October. On Monday, Mosk says he was told that he could expect the records “fairly soon.” The request remained unfilled at the time of the article’s publication, and it remains unclear when he’ll get them.

“I’m guessing Halloween,” says Mosk. “Or some other inconvenient time.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.