A foot of snow couldn’t keep celebrities away from a star-studded celebration of civil-rights-era music, hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the White House in February 2010.
But you won’t find Bob 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 Ave., which is maintained by the Secret Service.
Similarly, the logs are missing the names of 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, whom they met with and the nature of their visits. The logs even include the names of people who never showed up. These are critical gaps that raise doubts about the records’ historical accuracy and utility in helping the public understand White House operations, from social events to meetings on key policy debates.
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 as having fewer 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 apparently never showed up. The Center analysis found more than 200,000 visits with no time of arrival, an indication that the person didn’t enter the White House, though there is no way to be certain.
• 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. “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.
However, the White House agreed to release the data 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 are covered by the Freedom of Information Act. (They say no.)
Moreover, the settlement doesn’t cover visitor records generated from Jan. 20 to 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 into 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 Obama said during his campaign would not 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.”
The records posted on the White House website, though voluminous, cover mostly mundane matters, such as tours and social events. In all, more than 50,000 names are listed for people who visited the president, POTUS in Secret Service parlance. Most were for 600 ceremonial or social gatherings, such as the July Fourth celebration in 2010, attended by more than 3,600 people.
But the logs reveal far less about the purpose of nearly half of the 300-plus private meetings listed with Obama, including those with politicians and even sports figures.
Case in point: Jeffrey Kindler, former chief executive of Pfizer, the world’s biggest drug company, is listed as visiting the White House complex eight times. Only three 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 social functions. Twice last year, Trumka met privately with Obama and once with Vice President Joe Biden, the records show, but no details are given. The AFL-CIO declined to comment.
Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker, the Obama’s campaign finance chairman, met with the president on Feb. 16, 2009, in the Oval Office, according to the logs. Several other “bundlers,” each of whom 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 to complete the log’s description field.
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.
Reggie 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 and some Obama friends are listed as visitors to Love.
In addition, nearly two dozen campaign fundraisers and their family members are 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 their meetings. Among them was Hildy Kuryk, a New York fundraiser for Obama who now is deputy national finance director of the Democratic National Committee.
While Emanuel is listed as having fewer than 500 visitors, the logs show health care czar Nancy Ann DeParle had 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 staff 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. She also made more than two dozen other trips to the White House, visiting various aides or press office staff.
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 avoid listing such visitors in the logs by steering them to buildings just outside the White House complex. An Obama spokesman denied to POLITICO there was any such motive for holding the meetings off-site.
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.”
Viveca Novak and Fred Schulte are writers with the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit group focused on investigative journalism.