Secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix.
—Harry S. Truman, Merle Miller, Plain Speaking
At first one seeks comfort in the fact that in the Obama administration it’s good people who are visiting the White House and in the Bush administration it was the other kind. The comfort is brief.
Those with long memories will recall the endless fights over the White House Logs during the 8 years of the Bush presidency. Mr. Bush did not want people to know who visited the White House because it was none of the people’s business. Mr. Bush’s henchman, Dick Cheney also took the position that it was none of the people’s business to know who visited his residence or office. (Not only did Mr. Cheney not want people to know who visited him, he did not want people to know what people were involved in formulating the energy policy that was promulgated early in the Bush administration. The Supreme Court agreed that the people were not entitled to know who participated in making the energy policy and that information remained secret until 2007 when much of it was disclosed by the Washington Post.)
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In 2006 the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) brought suit in order to find out how often conservative religious leaders had been visitors in the White House and the vice-president’s residence. Judge Roy Lamberth had the opportunity to rule on the administration’s claims on two different occasions. The first was in 2006 when Judge Lamberth concluded that since the records were kept by the Secret Service rather than the White House, the plaintiffs were entitled to get them under the Freedom of Information Act. He further observed that letting the public know who the visitors were would not “disclose presidential communications or shine a light on the president’s or vice president’s policy deliberations.” The judge also said that the White House did not avoid the results of his ruling when, after the suit was brought, it entered into an agreement with the Secret Service that after the records were created they would be turned over to the White House and labeled “presidential documents. When the case was appealed and sent back to him for further proceedings he again ruled that the logs were subject to the open records rules.
Dick Cheney enjoyed being shrouded in mystery. He did not want anyone to know who visited the vice-presidential mansion. When the Washington Post sued to find out who had visited the vice-president’s residence and office, the administration took the same position it took in the CREW suit. Like Judge Lamberth, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina was unimpressed. He said records of who visited Dick Cheney were controlled by the Secret Service and, therefore, releasable under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He rejected the assertion that those logs were presidential records and not subject to the FOIA. The government obtained an order temporarily blocking the release of the records. (Before an appeal could be heard the Washington Post that had brought the suit, withdrew the suit.)
In contrast to the Bush position, the Clinton administration never attempted to assert executive privilege over the logs even though such an assertion would have served Mr. Clinton well since the logs showed when Monica Lewinsky visited the White House, a useful bit of information when Republicans were impeaching President Clinton. They also showed when Denise Rich, the wife of Marc Rich who was pardoned in the last hours of the Clinton administration visited the White House.
Even though two Federal District Court judges have ruled during the Bush years that the visitor logs are not presidential records but Secret Service agency records that are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the Obama administration has adopted the Bush position and refused to release them. Once again, CREW has sprung into action. It has sued to find out which top executives of the coal industry have met with White House officials in order to influence the administration’s energy policy.
While still a Senator and not yet a full fledged candidate Mr. Obama said: “We have to find more environmentally sound ways of mining coal than simply blowing the tops off mountains.” Now he is president. The EPA has just approved 42 of 48 pending applications including some that involve mountain top removal. That is the process by which the tops of mountains are blown off, the coal extracted and the residue shoved into valleys and streams below the former mountains. Mr. Obama’s critics would like to know which coal company executives have visited the White House and what their influence may have been. It sounds sadly similar to the questions that were asked but not answered when Dick Cheney’s energy policy was being developed. One hopes the similarity is illusory. But this example (and a number of others described by the New York Times’s Bob Herbert) leads one reluctantly but inexorably to the sense that it’s déjà vu all over again.