President Barack Obama made a media splash four years ago when he became the first president to declare he would publicly release the names of people who came to visit the White House, whether for official business or pleasure.
But the recent scandal over ex-CIA Director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair has exposed the limitations of both the Obama White House’s promise and its practice.
The two women at the center of the controversy – biographer Paula Broadwell who had the affair and Petraeus friend Jill Kelley whose complaint to the FBI about harassing emails uncovered the scandal – visited the White House a total of five times since Obama took office. And none of their visits was in the publicly released database at the time the scandal broke.
The White House offers several explanations. First, all three of Kelley’s visits were in the last three months and the White House typically has a 90-day lag on disclosing visits.
Officials said Broadwell’s first visit to the executive mansion occurred during Obama’s first eight months in office in 2009, a period during which the president had not yet agreed to release the records as a way of settling a lawsuit from a citizen watchdog group.
But Broadwell’s second visit to the White House in 2011 exposes a loophole in the Obama administration’s disclosure commitment that previously escaped much scrutiny. The biographer was invited to a briefing along with about 20 others – many of them from think tanks – for a preview of an Obama speech on Afghanistan.
White House officials said that visit wasn’t disclosed for national security reasons, an explanation that troubles the very disclosure advocates who fought for the release of the visitor logs in the first place.
The second Broadwell visit “does appear problematic,” said Melanie Sloan, head of the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which filed the original lawsuit that nudged Obama to disclose the visitor logs. “As part of the settlement of our lawsuit, CREW agreed that certain visits that implicated national security could be withheld. It was our understanding, however, that this would be narrowly construed.
“If the White House is interpreting the exception to allow it to exclude from disclosure a briefing for a group of 20, including individuals who work for think tanks, this is a much broader reading than we ever anticipated. It suggests the exception may be swallowing the rule,” said Sloan, who served as a Justice Department prosecutor during the Clinton years and as a Democratic congressional lawyer before that.
The White House says it can exempt from disclosure any meetings involving national security staff –- such as Broadwell’s 2011 briefing — but it doesn’t know how often that happens because it is not tracking the exemptions, according to an official familiar with the process.
The White House says it volunteered the information about Kelley and Broadwell to reporters in the last few days as a “sign of good faith, and in the interest of being responsive” and that overall it deserves credit for disclosing more than 2.7 million visitors’ entrances to the executive mansion since 2009. It also says there’s a reason for the 90-day time lag in disclosure.
“The short time lag allows the White House to continue to conduct business, while still providing the American people with an unprecedented amount of information about their government. No previous White House has ever adopted such a policy,” the White House said in a statement to the Washington Guardian.
The White House currently is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act and therefore is not legally obligated to disclose visitor records. But when CREW sued to test the president’s commitment to transparency back in 2009, the president agreed to a voluntary release. The exclusions, however, include visits before Sept. 15, 2009 and those perceived to involve national security.
The Petraeus scandal isn’t the first time shortcomings and limitations to the disclosure system have been raised. The nonprofit investigative journalism outlet the Center for Public Integrity in 2011 found numerous instances in which known visitors didn’t show up in the database, including instances of entertainers like Bob Dylan and Joan Bez, who gave live performances at the mansion but weren’t listed in the logs.