Today marks a major milestone in government transparency -- and an important lesson in the unintended consequences of such vigorous disclosure.
We previously announced that the White House in December of this year would -- for the first time in history -- begin posting all White House visitor records under the terms of our new voluntary disclosure policy. As part of that initiative, we also offered to look back at the records created before the announcement of the policy and answer specific requests for visitor records created earlier in the year.
So far we’ve processed 110 disclosure requests from September that yielded nearly 500 visitor records. All of these are now available on the White House website in accessible, searchable format for anyone to browse or download. Consistent with our earlier announcement that we will only release records 90 days or older, this first batch covers the period of time between January 20, 2009 to July 31, 2009. Future batches will be posted on an ongoing basis. (You can submit a request here.)
This first release is only the latest in a series of unprecedented steps by the President to increase openness in government. They include putting up more government information than ever before on data.gov and recovery.gov, reforming the government’s FOIA processes, providing on-line access to White House staff financial reports and salaries, adopting a tough new state secrets policy, reversing an executive order that previously limited access to presidential records, and web-casting White House meetings and conferences. The release also compliments our new lobbying rules, which in addition to closing the revolving door for lobbyists who work in government have also emphasized expanding disclosure of lobbyist contacts with the government.
There’s an important lesson here as well. This unprecedented level of transparency can sometimes be confusing rather than providing clear information.
A lot of people visit the White House, up to 100,000 each month, with many of those folks coming to tour the buildings. Given this large amount of data, the records we are publishing today include a few “false positives” – names that make you think of a well-known person, but are actually someone else. In September, requests were submitted for the names of some famous or controversial figures (for example Michael Jordan, William Ayers, Michael Moore, Jeremiah Wright, Robert Kelly ("R. Kelly"), and Malik Shabazz). The well-known individuals with those names never actually came to the White House. Nevertheless, we were asked for those names and so we have included records for those individuals who were here and share the same names.
Norm Eisen is special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform