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By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration plans to change White House policy by releasing the names of thousands of visitors whose comings and goings traditionally are kept secret by presidents.
President Obama said Friday the change follows a lengthy legal review. The policy change resolves four lawsuits filed by a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), against the Obama and Bush administrations seeking details on White House meetings.
Until now, Obama had followed the Bush policy of keeping visitor logs secret. News organizations and watchdog groups had sought to make the records public to show who was influencing administration policy on health care, financial rules and other issues.
"We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent administration in history not only by opening the doors of the White House to more Americans, but by shining a light on the business conducted inside," Obama said. "Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process."
The new policy would begin in mid-September. Electronic visitor logs maintained by the Secret Service would be released three to four months after visits are made. The disclosure would include who set up the meeting, where it was held and for how long. Specific requests for visits before Sept. 15 would be dealt with individually.
Exceptions would be made in cases of national security, extreme confidentiality — such as a visit by a future Supreme Court nominee — and strictly personal visits to the first family, including daughters Malia and Sasha.
About 70,000 to 100,000 people visit the White House each month. Visitors' names have been released on occasion, usually as a result of court battles. The Bush administration settled several court cases in 2006 by releasing visits to the White House by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted of bribing public officials.
In the pending CREW lawsuits, a federal district court judge ruled that the records should be released under the federal Freedom of Information Act, but the Obama administration appealed.
In July, the White House acted on one case, voluntarily releasing the names of health care executives who visited earlier this year and the dates of those meetings.
CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said the change will help shed light on administration policymaking. "It can be a big deal to know who's there," she said.
In recent years, groups such as Judicial Watch and the Sierra Club fought to learn who then-vice president Dick Cheney met with on energy policy, who Bill and Hillary Clinton met with on health policy, and which fundraisers were invited to the Clinton White House for sleepovers.
Obama pledged during his campaign to run the most transparent administration in history. He expanded access to presidential records and told agencies to more freely disclose information upon request. He pledged to detail how hundreds of billions of dollars in economic stimulus money is being spent. And he released Bush-era memos on the harsh treatment of terrorism suspects.
The administration refused to release photos of that treatment, however, and its effort to put more data online has gone slowly. "They found that transparency was harder to live with than it was to promise," Sloan said.
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