Obama names 500 White House visitors

The White House on Friday released a small list of visitors to the White House since President Barack Obama took office in January.

No previous administration has released such a list, though the information out so far is incomplete. Only 500 names out of the tens of thousands who have visited the Obama White House were made public. Like the Bush administration before it, Obama is arguing that any release is voluntary, not required by law, depsite two federal court rulings to the contrary.

Under the Obama White House's policy, most names of visitors from Inauguration Day in January through the end of September will never be released. The White House says it plans to release most of the names of visitors from October on, and that release is due near the end of the year. There are limitations there as well, including potential Supreme Court nominees, personal guests of the First Family, and certain security officials.

The names released Friday evening included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, actor George Clooney, former Sen. Thomas Daschle, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and John Podesta, a former chief of staff under President Bill Clinton who headed Obama's transition.

Other familiar names on the list: Religious Right leader Gary Bauer, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, former Sen. Howard Dean, JP Morgan's James Dimon, Sen. Al Franken, former Vice President Al Gore, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, constitutional scholar Cass Sunstein, and actor Denzel Washington.

Msnbc.com has put the full list in a handy PDF file, and it's also available in an Excel file for those who like to sort.

The White House warns that many names that may appear familiar — and controversial —do not in fact refer to the most famous people to carry those names. Jeremiah Wright is on the list, but it's not the president's former pastor. Michael Jordan is not the basketball player. This Michael Moore is not a filmmaker. And William Ayers, who took a group tour of the White House, isn't the former radical from Chicago. The White House could have avoided some of that sort of confusion by providing more information on the visitors, such as an employer name and the city they hail from.

"This unprecedented level of transparency can sometimes be confusing rather than providing clear information," a White House special counsel, Norm Eisen, wrote on the White House blog.

If you spot a name on the list that bears investigating, please drop us a note.

Limited release
Despite the accompanying White House claim of "transparency like you've never seen before," the Obama White House continues to take the same legal position as the Bush White House, arguing that the records are not public records subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Only limited "voluntary releases" are being made to settle a lawsuit filed by an advocacy group, though a federal judge has twice ruled that all the visitor logs are public.

Yet there are severe limitations to the transparency:

Most of the visitors from Inauguration Day to September will never be released by the White House under this voluntary disclosure — unless the public can guess their names. The White House policy doesn't allow members of the public or press to ask for "everyone who visited health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle," or everyone who visited on May 4, or everyone from the American Medical Association. Only individual names can be checked.

What was released Friday were just 500 names that result from 110 of the requests made by members of the public so far, for visits during the period from Inauguration Day through July.

A request for all records from the first months of the administration, filed by msnbc.com, 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 msnbc.com has filed an administrative appeal with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service.

The White House announcement is here.

Besides Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt are also on the list. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC. One of NBC's parents is GE.)

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