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Obama's Semi-Opaque Transparency

Tevi Troy

The Obama White House has developed a workaround its own promises of transparency.

As Jon Stewart recently joked, “When you don’t live in the White House, sunlight is the best disinfectant. When you live in the White House, disinfectant stings!”

He is talking about the administration’s apparent strategy of having aides hold off-site meetings with lobbyists — so that they don’t need to record their visits in the Secret Service logs.

Politico has reported that White House aides have been taking these meetings in the White House’s satellite offices in Jackson Place and even one nearby coffee shop. Meetings that do take place in the White House, according to a Center for Public’s Integrity investigative piece that ran Friday in Politico, are often logged without key details — including who was there and what was discussed.

This lack of openness – and consistency – is itself revealing. “When they need us,” one lobbyist said – anonymously, of course, “they call us. When they don’t, we’re evil.”

The notion of White House officials taking meetings off the White House grounds is not new. When I served in the Bush White House, I would often meet friends at the nearby Starbucks, at 17th and Pennsylvania. I wanted to save friends the hassle of going through security — which requires multiple check points and magnetometers. But I certainly did not do this to circumvent transparency requirements or campaign promises.

In fact, the nearby Starbucks was so filled with reporters, lobbyists and other White House aides that one friend and I used to go to the Starbucks at 18th Street just off Pennsylvania Avenue. We dubbed it the “Stealthbucks.” There, we could get a semblance of privacy when we exchanged notes.

But, using this tactic to get around a campaign promise, rather than to get outside the White House bubble, is disturbing.

Another tactic the Obama White House is using to avoid unwanted publicity is the refusal to write anything down. As Politico has described, staffers respond to even routine email requests for information with a terse “Gimme a ring.”

This tactic is an expansive interpretation of the “Washington Post rule” — never write down anything that you would not want to see on the newspaper’s front page. Bush staffers used a similar phrase to avoid potentially controversial emails: “Let’s discuss.”

This quest for secrecy is certainly understandable in our current “gotcha” world of the 24-hour news cycle, partisan blogosphere and frenetic Twitter-verse. White House aides have seen how quickly colleagues can get in hot water over an ill-phrased comment or injudicious email that may just reflect a high-pressure job and tight deadline.

At the same time, of course, President Barack Obama had promised unprecedented transparency and the alleged end to lobbyist influence. But he probably has since discovered that lobbyists are often essential to cutting legislative deals – especially with federal power split by the parties.

So, something has had to give, and the stealth visits to outdoor meeting places and the preference for phone calls over emails have become the tactics of choice.

Nonetheless, White House aides relying on these tactics need to recognize how flawed they are for staying under the radar over the long term. There are few secrets in the White House. While such meetings may not show up on the visitor logs, it is naïve for White House aides engaging in such meetings to think that they are completely unrecorded.

First, setting up the meeting requires some kind of interaction between the aide and the lobbyist. If this is set up via email, then those messages are potentially a public record. If the lobbying took the aide’s advice to “gimme a ring,” there is at least one, and possibly two, records of the call. The White House phone logs record calls coming in and out of the complex.

More senior White House aides also have their own records of calls into and out of their offices — usually maintained by an assistant. It was these records that revealed to Karl Rove’s lawyer his client’s infamous phone exchange with Matt Cooper about the Valerie Plame affair.

In addition, meeting at one of the nearby locales is no guarantee of secrecy — as my quest for a “Stealthbucks” further away from the White House orbit demonstrates. The other customers at the nearby Starbucks, Caribou or Hay Adams Hotel are all potential sources, who could call, post, email or tweet about the goings-on between White House staffers and lobbyists.

It may only be a matter of time before DC generates its own version of the paparazzi, who photograph customers and match them up with Google images to determine who was meeting whom.

Obama’s call for transparency was admirable. But as this episode reveals, it is easier to promise than to deliver. Driving lobbyist meetings away from the White House grounds will not make lobbyist meetings disappear. And it certainly does not guarantee that they won’t be discovered – or that administration officials won’t be held accountable.

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