Is the White House taking a page from Dick Cheney’s playbook by refusing to disclose who’s visiting the West Wing to lobby on energy and climate issues?
Much like the preceding administration, Team Obama is fighting to keep White House visitor logs secret. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonpartisan watchdog group, recently requested that the Secret Service make the White House logs public, asking specifically for access to records of visits by coal company executives. The request was denied, and the group is now filing suit.
CREW filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request [PDF] to the Secret Service on May 15, requesting “all records relating to any visit” made to the White House by the CEOs of 16 major coal companies and lobby groups.
In their response to the request [PDF], the Secret Service claimed that the logs qualify as presidential and vice-presidential records and thus aren’t covered by FOIA — and could also be protected under “presidential communications privilege.”
In its formal complaint [PDF] filed with the Department of Homeland Security, CREW argues that:
CREW is harmed by DHS’s failure to process CREW’s FOIA request on an expedited basis, because that failure hampers CREW’s ability to satisfy the compelling public need for full, accurate and current information about the influence that executives of the 10 largest coal production companies within the United States have had, or attempted to have, on the president and his administration in formulating the nation’s energy policy. Absent this critical information, CREW cannot advance its mission of educating the public to ensure that the public continues to have a vital voice in government.
Another request for access to White House visitors logs made by MSNBC was also denied recently. The same claim of executive privilege was used by the Bush administration to block requests from environmental groups to find out who participated in Dick Cheney’s infamous energy task force meetings.
Federal judges have rejected that argument twice, but litigation continues. The Obama White House has had two opportunities — in late January and May — to change policy on this subject when it filed papers on the case in appeals court. It seems the new president has decided to stick with the Bush administration’s policy, however.
CREW Chief Counsel Anne Weismann was on NPR’s On the Media on Friday to discuss the policy. “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,” said Weismann.
“The similarities with the Vice President Cheney’s Energy Task Force are really striking,” she continued. “[I]t’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.”