Millions of names have been released since President Obama announced the White House would begin publishing its visitor logs in September 2009. The latest iteration of the visitation records, published Dec. 30, puts the cumulative total at more than 5.02 million visitor names published over the course of the last six years.
Amid criticism that meetings with lobbying interests were not adequately shared with the public, watchdog groups rallied and litigated for the White House to open the lists as part of the public record.
Obama’s unprecedented move toward improved transparency came as a result of continued pressure from these groups, who had been seeking access to the George W. Bush administration logs.
Their call for a public window into the Bush logs was linked, in part, to questions of just how involved lobbyists were in the creation of the country’s energy policies.
In a June 2009 interview with Fox News, Melanie Sloan with the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said the Bush administration argued the records were part of presidential communications and were not subject to public records — a point that was disputed in a 2009 court ruling.
But Bush was not the only president who faltered over the release of the logs. Former President Bill Clinton also resisted release of the visitor data during the inquiry into his relations with Monica Lewinsky.
Continued CREW litigation and pressure under the Obama administration paved the way for the president to open the majority of the requested information.
Obama granted “voluntary access” to the Workers and Visitors Entry System (WAVE) and Access Control Records (ACR) systems records in September 2009. As per the White House policy, the lists are updated every 90 to 120 days.
"For the first time in history, records of White House visitors will be made available to the public on an ongoing basis," Obama said in a Sept. 4 release. "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. Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process."
Though the regularly scheduled release represents a never-before-seen access to comings and goings of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the information is subject to some administrative oversight.
According to the official policy, personal data and regular schedules, purely personal visits to the first and second families, and “particularly sensitive meetings” or meetings surrounding national security issues are subject to withholding from public records.
"Today the Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise," Sloan said in the Sept. 4, 2009, press release. “The Obama administration will have the most open White House in history. Providing public access to visitor records is an important step in restoring transparency and accountability to our government."
Despite the step forward in public transparency, others have called the policy “imperfect and incomplete,” and have asked for more comprehensive releases, like records for substantive calls and in-person meetings.
While the running list may seem like every reporter’s wildest dream come true, the details are fairly limited and include the visitor’s name, in and out times, destination, and a brief description (if any) of the purpose of their visit.
In 2013, the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit government accountability group, wrote that the log system was designed as a security tool, not a disclosure tool, and could be easily avoided by parties with reason to conceal meetings with those at the White House.
“The voluntary system can be too easily circumvented. Because it only captures visitors to the White House, if an administration official wishes to keep a meeting with a lobbyist secret, he or she merely has to schedule it at a nearby location, such as nearby coffee shops and the Jackson Place meeting complex, not subject to WAVES or ACR,” the group wrote. “Phone calls are also used to avoid disclosure, as they provide no record of even the most substantive conversations between White House officials and influencers.”