Mohana Ravindranath | Nextgov | April 14, 2017 | 0 Comments

Trump Is Keeping White House Visitor Logs Secret, Unlike Obama

Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com

President Donald Trump's administration has decided to keep White House visitor logs private, reversing practice under Barack Obama.

Under Obama, the White House maintained visitor records online—an archive still exists there—but the site under Trump currently asks visitors to "Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov."

The Trump administration is choosing to keep the records private because of "the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually," White House Communications Director Michael Dubke told Time, which first reported the news.

The new White House plans to treat those logs as presidential records exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and to be kept secret for at least five years after Trump leaves office, according to Time.

White House visitor logs were the subject of a recent congressional discussion about how transparent the federal government should be with the public. The Obama administration's decision to make visitor logs public was one example of a broader effort to make federal data public, including about government spending. The 2014 Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, for instance, requires federal agencies to make spending data public by May.

At a recent House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, said he planned to reintroduce the OPEN Government Data Act: legislation that would require agencies to publish data they collect in a machine-readable format online.

“We have no idea what information we’ll be able to glean out of this—how the government might be able to save money, what new inventions might be coming, what scientific advances may happen," he said then.

Asked how Farenthold's legislation might be improved, witness Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, suggested the White House and federal agencies more broadly should be required to publish their visitors logs to show the comings and goings of lobbyists, foreign nationals and others.

"The Obama administration's visitor logs revealed a significant amount of information—just recently, it was revealed that Secretary of State and former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson lobbied the Obama administration against sanctions for Russia," Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., noted during that hearing.

Though he supported keeping visitor logs open, witness Hudson Hollister, head of advocacy group the Data Coalition, noted "these logs are going to be of limited usefulness. A lot of meetings take place in the coffee shops in the area," instead of the White House. 

"The decisions and the operations and particularly the money" are much harder to track, he added.

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