ASNE letter to President Obama urging release of White House visitor records

American Society of News Editors President Martin Kaiser called on the White House today to release records containing the identity of all White House visitors since Inauguration Day.

American Society of News Editors President Martin Kaiser called on the White House today to release records containing the identity of all White House visitors since Inauguration Day. In a letter sent June 18, Kaiser follows through on the promise made by his predecessor as ASNE president, Charlotte Hall, that ASNE will hold the Obama administration to early promises of increased transparency and openness in government.

The current controversy surrounds a May 21, 2009, Freedom of Information Act request by MSNBC for all records of the United States Secret Service "relating to any visit that any and all individuals made to the White House from 12:00 p.m. on January 20, 2009, to present." The particular records are contained in two databases: 1) the Worker and Visitor Entrance System, a Secret Service database that includes information about individuals who have made a planned visit to the White House; and 2) the Access Control Records System, which contains information generated when a pass holder, worker or visitor, swipes a permanent or temporary White House pass upon entry or exit to the White House.

MSNBC seeks information including "the name of the pass holder submitting the request, the date of the request, the time and location of the planned visit, and the nature of the visit or the person to be visited." The request specifically acknowledges that "dates of birth, Social Security numbers, home addresses (other than city and state), ? results of background checks on prospective visitors, ? the Note or Comment field in the Secret Service databases and ? other security-related information or procedures" can and should be redacted. The nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a similar request on May 15, 2009, though only seeking information regarding the possible visits to the White House of executives of 10 of the nation's largest coal production companies.

The Secret Service denied both requests, a frustrating contradiction of the pledge of openness made by President Obama and his administration in several documents earlier this year: the Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government; a Memorandum for Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies on the Freedom of Information Act; an Executive Order on the Presidential Records Act issued on Jan. 22, 2009; and Attorney General Eric Holder's Memorandum for Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies that instructed agencies to release information requested under FOIA unless the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions, or disclosure is prohibited by law. In contradicting its own words, the administration also ignores federal court rulings issued against the Bush administration (also in a case involving CREW) in 2007 and again in January 2009; those courts held that these records are properly subject to FOIA and not subject to any FOIA exemption. In fact, the Obama administration has made court filings in that case opposing those earlier requests by CREW.

Kaiser's letter calls the Obama administration to task on its failure to live up to the early words that were praised so highly by many open government advocates, characterizing these denials as acts that speak "louder than any number of words, no matter how promising those words were on paper." Noting that the administration has not only made strong statements in favor of open government, but undertaken a series of initiatives to promote open government (ASNE has participated in several of these efforts), Kaiser calls on the administration to reverse its position in this instance and act consistently with its other actions and earlier words.

The American Society of News Editors intends to remain active on this important open government issue and others. We will continue to speak out, not only in the executive branch, but also the legislative and judicial fronts, in opposition to any governmental action that adversely impacts the public's right to know.

With some 600 members, ASNE is an organization that includes directing editors of daily newspapers throughout the Americas. ASNE changed its name in April 2009 to the American Society of News Editors and approved broadening its membership to editors of online news providers and academic leaders. Founded in 1922, as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, ASNE is active in a number of areas of interest to top editors with priorities on improving freedom of information, diversity, readership and credibility of newspapers.