By Earl F Glynn | Franklin Center
This is the first in a series of technical articles about analyzing White House visitor data. This article looks at the purpose of the visitor data, the collection process, and the legal battles over its release.
The battle over the release of White House visitor records has been fought for years.
A 1998 news report about the investigation of President Bill Clinton’s “inappropriate relationship” with Monica Lewinsky mentioned the “WAVES logs of who enters the White House” and explained “WAVES stands for Workers and Visitors Entrance System.” The article said investigator Ken Starr would be looking at the “records that would document reports that Lewinsky visited the White House 37 times.”
Congressional investigators sought House White House visitor records in 2001 to resolve discrepancies in testimony over President Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich on his last day in office. A February 28, 2001 Seattle Times news article indicated the records said Clinton met with Rich at the White House on the day of the pardon, but two others listed as attending the meeting denied they were there.
In the middle of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal in 2006, President George W. Bush quietly signed an agreement with the Secret Service declaring the White House visitor data were part of the White House presidential records and were not Secret Service agency records. The intent of that agreement was to put the White House records out of reach of Freedom of Information Act requests. The agreement came to light in a Washington Post lawsuit to obtain Secret Service logs about visitors to Vice President Dick Cheney.
This agreement and whether or not White House visitor records can be obtained via FOIA requests have been challenged in a number of lawsuits, including one on appeal today.
Legal battles over White House visitor records
A crescendo of FOIA lawsuits to obtain White House visitor records resulted in the voluntary release of White House records starting in late 2009:
- 2006, Washington Post v. US Department of Homeland Security sought release of information about visitors to Vice President Dick Chaney, specifically visitors David Addington, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, C. Dean McGrath, Steven Schmidt, John Hannah, Eric Edelman, Ron Christie, Victoria Nuland, Aaron Friedberg, Stephen Yates Samantha Ravich, and David Wurmser. This investigation was over the leaked name of CIA employee Valerie Plame.
- 2006, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) v. US Department of Homeland Security et al sought information about White House visitors to George W. Bush described as “conservative Christian leaders. The targeted visitors included James Dobson, Gary L. Bauer, Wendy Wright, Louis P. Sheldon, Andrea Lafferty, Paul Weyrich, Tony Perkins, Donald Wildmon, and Jerry Falwell.
- 2008, CREW v. US Department of Homeland Security sought information about visits by Stephen Payne to the White House or Vice President Cheney’s residence. Press reports at that time said Payne was caught offering access to top White House officials in exchange for a $250,000 donation to the President George W Bush’s private library.
- June 2009, CREW v. US Department of Homeland Security sought information about President Barack Obama’s meetings with coal industry visitors.
- July 2009, CREW v. US Department of Homeland Security sought information about President Obama’s meetings with health care executives. In July 2009 the White House voluntarily released part of the information.
- December 2009, Judicial Watch v. US Secret Service sought “all visitor logs and/or other records concerning visits made to the White House from January 20, 2009 to the present” during President Barrack Obama’s administration. Judicial Watch filed this lawsuit after the White House refused to release a complete list of visitors logs for the months after taking office in January 2009 through September 15, 2009. The case is still under appeal with oral arguments recently heard in September.
“Opening up the people’s house”
A September 4, 2009 White House blog posting, “Opening up the people’s house,” announced the new Obama administration’s voluntary disclosure policy about visitor access records and a settlement with CREW over four pending lawsuits.
On that day, the White House released records sought by CREW for the “conservative Christian leaders” visits (part 1 and part 2) with George W Bush, and heavily redacted records dealing with Stephen Payne’s visits to Vice President Cheney.
The first monthly voluntary release of visitor records started on December 30, 2009 with the release of 25,000 records.
Since then there have been regular releases of visitor logs on the last Friday of each month for the month three months before. The first release on December 30, 2009 was for records from September 2009.
The latest release on Nov. 30, 2012 of more than 2.8 million records was for the month ending in August 2012.
Exceptions to releasing White House visitor data
The White House Voluntary Disclosure Policy about Visitor Access Records identifies four exceptions for data that would not be released:
- Data fields that “implicate personal privacy or law enforcement concerns” would not be released. The redacted fields above in the WAVES example shows most of the fields that are not released.
- Records related “to purely personal guest of the first and second families” would not be released.
- Records “related to a small group of particularly sensitive meetings.”
- Because of incompatible systems, information released about visitors to the Vice President’s residence would not be identical to information released about visitors to the White House complex.
Additional WAVES/ACR information from legal documents
Judicial Watch is still in a battle for information about the first half-million visitors to the White House from 2009. A year ago in November Judicial Watch took that battle to the US Court of Appeals.
In the original case Judicial Watch provided on their website a 114-page “memorandum of law,” including many attachments with statements from White House and Secret Service officials. This document was submitted to the court by attorneys for the US Secret Service.
Shown below are selected excerpts from that document that give details about the WAVES data collection and processing at the White House (page references are for the PDF pages):
Role of Secret Service
- … To enable the Secret Service to perform this protective function, authorized personnel … provide identifying information regarding proposed visitors to the Secret Service. [p. 7]
- This information is provided … solely for the purpose of allowing the Secret Service to conduct background checks to determine whether, and/or under what conditions, a visitor should be admitted, and to allow the Secret Service to verify the visitor’s admissibility at the time of the visit [pp. 7-8]
- Authorized pass holders at the White House Complex usually provide the Secret Service with information on anticipated visitors to the White House Complex by entering the information into a computer, which automatically transmits it to the Secret Service. [p. 8]
- A Secret Service employee then verifies that the requestor is authorized to make appointments for the location requested, adds or changes any other information that may be necessary, and conducts background checks; the information is ultimately transmitted to … the Worker and Visitor Entrance System (“WAVES”). [p. 8]
- … some WAVES records are annotated by Secret Service personnel, in note and description fields, with limited information as a result of background checks or instructions, including coded instructions to Secret Service officers. [p.8] [efg's note: this may explain why many description fields may be blank in the released data, especially for POTUS visits.]
Access Control Records used to update WAVES
- There are two interrelated electronic systems — collectively termed the White House Access Control System (“WHACS”) — for controlling and monitoring access to the White House Complex: the Worker and Visitor Entrance System (“WAVES”) and the Access Control Records System (“ACR”). [p. 39]
- Once an individual is cleared into the White House Complex, the visitor usually receives a pass, which is swiped over one of the pass readers at entrances to and exits from the Complex. Swiping a pass automatically creates a record in the Access Control Records System (“ACR”). [pp. 8-9]
- Once a visit takes place, WAVES records are typically updated electronically with information showing the time and place of entry into and exit from the White House Complex. The information is ACR information, although the time of arrival may differ slightly between the WAVES and ACR records. [p.41]
- The after-visit records that combine WAVES and parts of ACR information are still commonly referred to as WAVES records, though they may also occasionally be referred to as WHACS records. [p. 63]
- Secret Service officers may also manually update WAVES records, such as by entering a time of arrival for large groups. [p. 63, footnote 2]
- It has been the practice of the Secret Service, since at least 2001, to transfer newly-generated WAVES records on CD-ROM to the White House Office of Records Management (“WHORM”), generally every 30 to 60 days. [p.9]
- In May 2006 … the Secret Service Records Management Program and the WHORM entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”), which both documents past practice and interests as understood at the time regarding WAVES and ACR records, and “confirm[s] the legal status of [these] records” and WHORM’s management and custody of them. [p. 10] [efg's note: See pp. 55-59 or pp. 66-70 for the Memorandum of Understanding between WHORM and the Secret Service and additional details.]
- WAVES and ACR records are maintained as records subject to the Presidential Records Act. [p. 43] [efg's note: various lawsuits have challenged this legal position, including the current suit by Judicial Watch. If the records are found not to be Presidential Records they can be subject to FOIA requests.]
- WAVES Records have historical and other informational value to the White House as evidence of who has been invited and/or granted admission to the White House to meet with the President or members of his staff. [p. 58]
- ACR Records have historical or other informational value to the White House, as evidence of the comings and goings of staff, visitors, and workers at the White House Complex in the conduct of White House business. [p. 58]
- On September 4, 2009, the White House announced its new policy to voluntarily disclose White House records reflecting visitor appointments … [p. 11]
- … Effective for visitor records created after September 15, 2009, the White House makes available online WAVES visitor records (including those parts of ACR records that are incorporated into WAVES records after a visit) from 90 – 120 days prior. [p. 11]
New WAVES tag for sensitive records about national security concerns
- In order to account properly for the exceptions to the voluntary disclosure policy, the ability to designate sensitive records was added to the WAVES system. For all post-September 15 appointments, White House Complex staff submitting an access request can designate whether the public release of the visitor record would implicate national security concerns. [p. 12]
- If a WAVES user designates an appointment as highly sensitive, s/he is also required to select whether the particular sensitivity of the meeting is derived from national security or non-national security matters. [p. 77]
- … the National Security Staff (“NSS”) … double checks all NSS visitor records that were not initially designated for withholding in order to ensure that no national security sensitive records are released. [p. 12]
- … each month, the NSS sorts NSS visitor records by visitee name and sends to each visitee a list of their visitors, along with the date and time of arrival and other information that may aid the visitee in making the exemption determination. … The visitee must review and validate that the visit need not be exempted for national security reasons [p. 12, footnote 6]
- After review by the visitee, or pertinent person, WAVES records are color coded, and records designated for public disclosure are reviewed for a third time by the Director for Counterintelligence and the Senior Director for Administration, before they are released. [p. 45]
Other data limitations
John Wonderlich, Director, Sunlight Foundation, in testimony to House Energy and Commerce Committee (PDF pp. 33-34 in White House Transparency, Visitor Logs, and Lobbyists Hearing on May 3, 2011. See Committee video.):
- “Some visitors are clearly missing from the data, despite their being at the White House.”
- “The visitee field often identifies an assistant, rather than the principal hold the meetings.”
- “There have been numerous reports of Administration officials scheduling meetings in the White House Conference Center (a space apparently not covered by the WAVES system), or holding meetings with lobbyists in coffee shops and restaurants near the White House.”
Anne L. Weismann, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in testimony to House Energy and Commerce Committee (PDF pp. 46in White House Transparency, Visitor Logs, and Lobbyists Hearing on May 3, 2011) [See CREW video]:
- “The White House visitor logs were never intended to function as calendars or appointment books of White House Officials.”
Data from January 20, 2009 to September 15, 2009
The intent of the Judicial Watch lawsuit is to force the White House to release the estimated 500,000 visitor records from January 20, 2009 through September 15, 2009. It’s unclear when that court battle will be settled.
The first release of White House records started with post-September 15 visits, but the White House Voluntary Disclosure Policy allows anyone to request of pre-September 15 records via the page Request White House Visitor Access Records.
“WAVES and ACR records created between January 20 and September 15, 2009 will not be subject to the voluntary disclosure policy.”
Requests made on that request page must be “reasonable, narrow, and specific”:
“…White House Counsel will respond voluntarily to individual requests submitted to the Counsel’s Office that are reasonable, narrow, and specific…”
The White House contends the Judicial Watch request for all records during the time frame is not reasonable, narrow or specific.
Judicial Watch won the FOIA battle in US District Court for the release of these records, but the government appealed and the battle over them continues in the appellate court.
Understanding the purpose, collection and release of the White House visitor records should give insight into the limitations on the use of the data.
- 2006, Washington Post v. US Department of Homeland Security. Docket • Complaint • Opinion.
- 2006, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) v. US Department of Homeland Security et al. Docket • Complaint • Opinion1 • Opinion2.
- 2008, CREW v. US Department of Homeland Security. Docket • Opinion.
- 2009, Judicial Watch v. Secret Service. Docket • Complaint • Opinion • Memorandum of Law.
- White House Visitor Access Records
- More Than 2.8 Million Records Released, The White House Blog, Nov. 30, 2012.
- White House visitors log a list of union leaders, lobbyists, Watchdog.org, Oct. 24, 2012.
- 10 Top Tech Execs Visiting the White House, CRN, Oct. 5, 2012.
- Obama Admin. Still Avoiding Release of White House Visitor Logs, Breitbart, Sept. 24, 2012.
- House committee accuses Obama administration of ‘putting secrecy over transparency’, Boston Globe, Aug. 1, 2012.
- Major Givers Are More Likely to Get White House Access, New York Times, April 14, 2012.
- Solyndra investor had three White House meetings on energy policy, Sunlight Foundation, Oct. 3, 2011.
- Court rules White House visitor logs subject to FOIA, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Aug. 18, 2011.
- White House must make visitor logs public, court holds, Washington Times, Aug. 17, 2011.
- White House visitor logs leave out many, Politico, April 13, 2011.
- White House visitor logs riddled with holes, Center for Public Integrity, April 13, 2011.
- CREW Calls for House Investigation into Obama Staffers’ Use of Personal Email, Meetings with Lobbyists, ABC News’ Political Punch, June 30, 2010.
- Across From White House, Coffee With Lobbyists, New York Times, June 24, 2010.
- Obama names 110 White House visitors, MSNBC, Nov. 4, 2009.
Series about analyzing White House visitor data
- Background information on White House visitor data, WatchdogLabs.org, Dec. 10, 2012.
- Discrepancies between “raw format” and final release versions of White House visitor records, WatchdogLabs.org, Dec. 11, 2012.
- White House Worker and Visitor Entry System Data Fields, WatchdogLabs.org, Dec. 12, 2012.
- Cleaning and standardizing White House visitor data, WatchdogLabs.org, Dec. 14, 2012.
- Dividing White House visitor data into categories: POTUS, staff, tourists, WatchdogLabs.org, Dec. 14, 2012.
- . . .
Please, feel free to steal our stuff! Just remember to credit WatchdogLabs.org or the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.
Contact Info: Email: Earl.Glynn@FranklinCenterHq.org, Twitter: @WatchdogLabs, Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/WatchdogLabs
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