White House Opaque Transparency

Yesterday afternoon, in a bit of faux transparency like you’ve never seen before, the administration released the names of everyone who has toured the White House from Obama’s inauguration through the end of July.  This, after various Freedom of Information Act requests to determine whether, say, William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright have stopped by.

A lot of people visit the White House, up to 100,000 each month, with many of those folks coming to tour the buildings. Given this large amount of data, the records we are publishing today include a few “false positives” — names that make you think of a well-known person, but are actually someone else. In September, requests were submitted for the names of some famous or controversial figures (for example Michael Jordan, William Ayers, Michael Moore, Jeremiah Wright, Robert Kelly (“R. Kelly”), and Malik Shabazz). The well-known individuals with those names never actually came to the White House. Nevertheless, we were asked for those names and so we have included records for those individuals who were here and share the same names.

Oddly, Kevin Drum and I had the same reaction (although he had it first, since I didn’t get the news until this morning):

This data dump includes everyone who’s been on a public tour of the White House?  Everyone who’s been invited to some kind of White House ceremony?  Seriously?

Yes, seriously.  Max Doebler, for example, is the White House ceremonies coordinator, and sure enough, there are 29 visitor records linked to luncheons and receptions where he’s listed as the official host.  Bill Ayers is one of the many people who were there for public tours.  (Plus a second mystery Bill Ayers who was there for some other reason.)

This is kind of ridiculous, isn’t it?  I suppose it’s easy enough to filter out the dross once you figure out the right codes, but it almost seems like the White House is deliberately trying to inundate everyone in useless mountains of data by including this stuff.  In particular, when the end of the year rolls around and we get the full dump, do we really need the names of all 500,000 people who have been on a tour of the residence?

No. No we don’t. “Transparency” would near-real-time releasing of the names of people who met with the president and other high level White House officials.  It’s long been understood in the legal arena that sending a warehouse full of files in response to discovery requests for a single document is dirty pool.  I fail to see how this is any different.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    Since the information will probably be used to go back and see if any of the invited visitors ever wrote a controversial term paper in the 9th grade, I certainly understand the WH wanting to make them work for it.

    More seriously, I write frequently about the executive branch having become too powerful. I would favor a weekly list of invited guests being published.

    Steve

  2. Mike says:

    If you have nothing to hide… did you really expect change?

  3. floyd says:

    transparency = obfuscation & 2+2=5… is that clear?

  4. Franklin says:

    Is this like paying my taxes in pennies?

  5. Michael says:

    From the announcement:

    All of these are now available on the White House website in accessible, searchable format for anyone to browse or download.

    Emphasis mine.

    This is hardly a truckload of printouts we’re talking about. Give any Perl monger 10 minutes and you will have any bit of data you want.

  6. Michael says:

    I would, however, criticize them for screwing up their text quoting.