Secret Service denies access to White House visitor logs

Miranda Fleschert | Freedom of Information | Feature | October 19, 2009

Despite the Obama administration's recent legal settlement to begin releasing White House visitor logs later this year, it has denied a different public interest group's recent request for those same records in the meantime.

In denying a request by watchdog group Judicial Watch, the U.S. Secret Service, through the Department of Homeland Security, said that White House visitor logs fall under the Presidential Records Act and are not subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act because they do not originate with a federal agency.

Last month, the Obama administration announced its plan to voluntarily publish White House visitor logs on its Web site beginning Dec. 31 in response to lawsuits for visitor logs brought by another government watchdog group. The records that were the subject of Judicial Watch's request here -- from Jan. 20, 2009 through Sept. 15, 2009 -- will remain largely private.

“The Obama White House has yet to explain why visitor logs from its first eight months will be afforded special protection,” Judicial Watch said in its release. The Obama administration maintains it needs time to review the records for national security concerns.

The new discretionary policy to release the logs came as part of a FOIA lawsuit settlement with the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. CREW initiated FOIA lawsuits in an effort to learn the names of health care and coal executives who met with Obama's White House and and religious leaders who met with the Bush administration. As part of the settlement of four FOIA cases, the Obama administration agreed to release to CREW some specific names of White House visitors during its first eight months in office.

Judicial Watch, however, received a blanket denial to its request even though a federal court has ruled that visitor logs are subject to FOIA. In January, U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth said the Secret Service must release the visitor logs to CREW. The administration dropped its subsequent appeal after reaching the settlement agreement with CREW.

Anne L. Weismann, chief counsel for CREW, explained that because the White House agreed to voluntarily release the records “we are still in disagreement as to the status. The White House continues to maintain that these are presidential records and we continue to maintain that they are not.”

Weismann said that the administration might interpret Judicial Watch’s request for every visitor’s name as unduly burdensome. In its requests, CREW sought specific names.

Still, Weismann is surprised by the outright denial of Judicial Watch’s request. “I would have thought in light of our agreement that [the Obama administration] would have reached out,” she said. “If the White House doesn’t try to resolve this with Judicial Watch, this could be the case that pushes the legal issue forward.”

A release issued by Judicial Watch made it clear the organization would continue to seek release of the records in question. "Just because the Obama White House says FOIA law doesn't cover White House visitor logs doesn't make it so. The Obama administration is not above the law," said president Tom Fitton in the release. "These visitor logs are subject to release under FOIA and the courts have affirmed this. Judicial Watch has no intention of abandoning its pursuit of these records. We will go to court, if necessary."