A few weeks ago, we spoke with Anne Weismann, Chief Counsel with CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Her organization had sued the Bush administration for access to the White House visitor logs. Here’s what she told us back in May.
ANNE WEISMANN: The Bush administration for the first time took the view that those were presidential records, which meant they were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. We won that battle in the court.
BOB GARFIELD: The case is now in the Court of Appeals, where the Obama administration filed a brief in support of the Bush administration’s desire to keep those records secret, a move, Weismann said at the time, was troubling, not to mention inconsistent with President Obama’s statements about transparency. So, Weismann filed a FOIA request for the Obama administration’s White House visitor logs and received a response earlier this month. She joins me once again. Anne - welcome back to the show.
ANNE WEISMANN: Thank you for having me back.
BOB GARFIELD: You got the response, and it said, yes, by all means, we're turning it all over. Back up the truck, here are all the records, right?
ANNE WEISMANN: No, that’s not the response we got, sadly, in fact. What the Obama administration told us is exactly what the Bush administration had told us. They said these are presidential records, which means that they are not accessible to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. And even if they were, we cannot release a single one because of the possibility – remote, I would suggest – that in some instance there might be a meeting that the President would want to keep secret and just to reveal the fact that he met with someone would reveal privileged information.
BOB GARFIELD: Permit me to play devil’s advocate here for a moment, devil’s advocate not so much for the Obama administration but for the principle of executive privilege. I think it would be probably impossible for a president to do business if every person he met with and, let's say, spoke to, because that’s the logical extension of this kind of inquiry, became public. You know, these are often delicate negotiations or deliberations, and total transparency would handcuff even the most well meaning of executives.
ANNE WEISMANN: But we're not talking about total transparency. We are not talking about records that reveal anything about the substance of any meeting that the President or anyone else has at the White House. These literally are logs that show that a certain person entered the White House, through a certain gate, at a certain time on a certain day. Some of the records, in fact, many of the records do not even indicate with whom the visitor was meeting. So we are asking for records that show nothing about the substance of meetings. Now, what the Bush administration has said in the past is that there could be an instance where even to acknowledge that the President is meeting with a specific individual will reveal confidential information. I mean, the district court, in our case, rejected that because, as the court pointed out, the executive privileges that are available, they protect communications, not the fact of the meeting. But even if you accept the proposition, and I think it would be a very rare meeting that even to reveal the fact that it took place and with whom would reveal confidential information, the notion that as a result of that you cannot allow any of the visitor records to ever be disclosed, I think this just goes way too far. Surely, the White House can come up with some alternatives.
BOB GARFIELD: There are some ironies in the particulars of your request. We went through this on a grand scale with the press trying to get information about then-Vice President Cheney’s Task Force on Energy Policy and was stopped at every turn, trying to get the names of the people meeting with the Vice President. Your request this time around [LAUGHS] is for coal industry executives. Is that a kind of pointed little tweak at the White House?
ANNE WEISMANN: Well, it wasn't intended to be but it certainly is playing out that way. You’re exactly right. The President has been a big proponent of clean coal. They're in the process of formulating the nation’s energy policy, and we wanted to know to what extent have coal executives, you know, been major players in that process. But you’re absolutely right. The similarities with the Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force are really striking. And I have to add it’s particularly ironic because when President Obama was running for office, he made a point, at one point, of criticizing the Energy Task Force meetings and said, when big oil companies are invited into the White House for secret energy meetings, it’s no wonder they end up with billions in tax breaks. So it’s really kind of extraordinary that this very man is now saying that we cannot find out what, if any, secret meetings he and his staff had with energy executives.
BOB GARFIELD: Anne, thank you very much, as always.
ANNE WEISMANN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Anne Weismann is Chief Counsel with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.