- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Obama administration, responding to lawsuits and complaints from private government watchdog groups, announced Friday that it will post online the names of almost all public visitors to the White House for the first time in history.

In a separate release going into the Labor Day holiday, the White House went around President Obama’s own executive order related to special interests in Washington, allowing ethics waivers for 10 top government officials so they can interact with their former employers in a limited capacity.

Mr. Obama’s decision to allow the public to see visitor logs detailing the thousands who come through the gate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was hailed by good government groups, who said they will keep a cautious eye on the limited exceptions the administration said it would make for keeping some names secret.

The move reverses a privacy policy that has been in place throughout numerous administrations, who argued the records were privileged under the Presidential Records Act. It will also apply to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s visitors.

“This is the first White House that’s ever been willing to tell us who is coming in and out … that will tell Americans who is influencing policy. That’s a big deal,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Records detailing visitors on an “appointment, tour or to conduct business,” from the previous 90 to 120 days will be posted online each month, the White House said.

Mr. Obama said in a statement that his administration is “shining a light on the business conducted inside” the White House, with the exception of personal family visitors, confidential meetings such as with potential Supreme Court nominees or due to sensitive national security concerns.

The White House did not respond to questions about who would judge which visitors fit into that category, but Ms. Sloan said the agreement was that the decision would be made by a small group and that with each release the White House will have to disclose the number of meetings it kept secret under the caveat.

Ms. Sloan said CREW, which had filed the lawsuits seeking the logs, did worry the “sensitive” category would be overused.

She said there are legitimate security concerns when it comes to undercover agents who may visit the White House, since the disclosures will be available to the entire world.

In a compromise move, the new policy will go into effect on Sept. 15 and will only apply to visitors from that time forward. The first logs will be released about Dec. 31.

Mr. Obama also released documents that CREW had sought related to visitors to former President George W. Bush’s White House and people who met with Vice President Dick Cheney.

The ethics waivers were released just hours later in a blog posting from Norm Eisen, special counsel to Mr. Obama for ethics and government reform.

He explained the annual report that Mr. Obama ordered for 2010 outlining the waivers was being released four months early and said the waivers were granted on an “exceedingly rare” basis since there are in total 16 out of 1,890 appointments made, or less than one percent. Of those, just three applied to lobbyists that Mr. Obama has banned from working in his government.

“Even the toughest rules require some flexibility,” he wrote.

Most prominent on the waiver list were Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden and Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who each were given waivers freeing them to work on a case looking into the conduct of government attorneys involved with the investigation of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

The waivers carve out those limited exceptions and do not apply to any other code of ethics or conduct.

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden was granted a waiver allowing him to be involved only at the policy or program level in matters related to engineering giant SAIC, where he had been a consultant, and aerospace and defense contractor GenCorp, where he had served on its board of directors. He is still banned from one-on-one meetings with officials from either firm and from being involved in any contracting matters related to the companies.

The disclosure showed Defense Undersecretary Ash Carter was given a waiver to work with Textron, a firm he formerly consulted for.

Another waiver was granted for former Microsoft executive Philip Reitinger, now director of Homeland Security’s Cyber Security Center, to be allowed to work with Microsoft.

Bryan Rahija of the Project on Government Oversight said the disclosure is a step toward transparency and agreed it was a low figure of waivers granted, but noted they aren’t as accessible as they may seem.

“While they’re at it, we might suggest making all the waivers searchable. Right now, much of the waiver text is locked away in .pdf files impenetrable to Google searches by potential citizen investigators,” he said.

The White House previously disclosed six waivers issued for top staffers in the executive office of the president, including a waiver to allow adviser Valerie Jarrett to continue leading the administration’s effort in the city of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.

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