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Help figure out who has been calling on Obama

Here's your chance to help figure out who has been visiting the White House during the early months of the Obama administration.
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Here's your chance to help figure out who has been visiting the White House during the early months of the Obama administration.

Although President Barack Obama has announced that he will make public the names of most visitors to the White House, there's a catch.

Under the new White House policy, names of visitors during the first eight months of the administration are not being released wholesale. Those visitors will be revealed only if a member of the public requests specific names to be checked against the visitor logs.

It's a guessing game. The White House rules don't allow you to ask for "everyone who visited on Feb. 3," or "anyone who visited green jobs czar Van Jones," but you can ask for all visits by specific people, whether former Sen. Tom Daschle or New York Times columnist David Brooks or an Obama campaign donor from your hometown.

The Obama administration on Wednesday set up an online form for requesting information on visitors during the period from Jan. 20 through Sept. 15. If you use the form to request visitor information, please help follow up by letting us know what records you requested, and what answer, if any, you receive from the White House. Just send an e-mail with that information.

The White House calls the release of information "voluntary," while continuing to argue the Bush administration's position that the records are presidential, not agency records, and therefore are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. A federal district court has ruled twice that all visitor records belong to the U.S. Secret Service, not the president, and therefore should be open under the FOIA. The Obama administration says it doesn't agree with the court, but is voluntarily making most of the records available. No previous president has taken that step.

If you want to make a request that goes beyond what's possible using the White House form —  such as a request for all visitors to a certain official —you can use a fill-in-the-blanks FOIA request that we've prepared. Here's a Microsoft Word version of the letter, and another plain-text version that you could paste into any word processor.

If you need help with names of lobbyists or campaign donors to check in the White House records, here are two resources: the Federal Election Commission's database of campaign contributors, and a database of Washington lobbyists from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The background
The Obama administration announced Friday that it would post visitor logs online, starting with visits after Sept. 15, 2009. They will show the name of the visitor, the name of the person requesting clearance for the visitor, and dates and times of visits.

But there were limits:

The logs will be released after delays of 90 to 120 days. The first records should be posted near the end of the year.
The White House said that certain "sensitive" visits, such as those by potential Supreme Court nominees, will not be revealed immediately — although the White House says it will tell how many visits are withheld on this basis, and will release the names later, "once they are no longer sensitive." Information on the arrival times of White House staff and the names of sensitive National Security visitors will not be made public.
Also hidden will be visitors whom the White House deems to be "purely personal guests of the first and second families (i.e., visits that do not involve any official or political business)."
Information on visitors from Jan. 20 through Sept. 15 "will not be subject to the voluntary disclosure policy." Instead, the White House will respond voluntarily to individual requests, "but only if the requests are reasonable, narrow and specific (e.g., requests that list specific possible visitors)."
That's where you come in. Use the links above to send in your request to the White House, or to file a broader Freedom of Information Act request with the Secret Service.

In exchange for the limited White House disclosure, a nonprofit group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington dropped its lawsuits from both the Bush and Obama eras. The group, founded by Democratic funders and former Democratic politicos, had been a thorn in the side of President George W. Bush on issues of open government, then filed similar lawsuits against the Obama administration. When it agreed to drop its lawsuits, CREW hailed Obama for running "the most open White House in history."

A separate request by remains open. The news organization requested the names of all visitors to the Obama White House beginning with Inauguration Day. That request is pending, and has filed an administrative appeal with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service.

Background on this issue is in our previous stories, at the links below. Documents related to the cases are in the box accompanying this article.