Two Washington-based open-government groups — Judicial Watch and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — won victories this week in their ongoing records dispute over White House visitor logs.
In a series of five decisions handed down on pending motions Monday and Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Secret Service was ordered to search its computer systems again for records related to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s White House visits.
Judicial Watch first requested the White House visitor information under the Freedom of Information Act in 2006. The Secret Service eventually reached an agreement with the group and released some of the documents requested. But Judicial Watch argued in court that the agency’s search for the information it ended up handing over was inadequate.
In one opinion released Tuesday, Judge Royce Lamberth agreed, ordering the Secret Service to broaden its search to include visitor records the Service transferred to White House control.
CREW also filed a FOIA request in 2006 with the Department of Homeland Security for records related to White House visits of several people, including Abramoff, who has been convicted of fraud. As in the Judicial Watch case, Lamberth found that the Secret Service — which maintains the records — didn’t conduct an adequate search and ordered it to do so. The cases were consolidated in January 2008.
The court also delved into a new category of records called “sensitive security records,” which are created when a background check of a White House visitor raises red flags for the Secret Service and prompts its officers to investigate. The Secret Service had not searched this category of records in response to either CREW or Judicial Watch’s FOIA requests.
The Secret Service and Homeland Security told the judge they could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of" sensitive security records that might pertain to the FOIA request. The agencies argued that doing so would expose compromising details about the security checks.
However, Lamberth ruled against the agencies, saying the argument did “not hold water.” Sensitive security records are not protected by a FOIA exemption that allows agencies to withhold documents when releasing them would help criminals circumvent agency regulation, the judge said.
“The Court is not convinced that the information plaintiff primarily seeks — the name of a visitor, the dates and times of his visits, and the person(s) visited — would allow even the most dedicated would-be criminal to discern what visitor characteristics trigger” a heightened security check, Lamberth said in one opinion.
Nor are the records protected under other FOIA exemptions allowing agencies to withhold information either on privacy grounds or because it was supplied for law enforcement purposes, Lamberth wrote.
In a related case, also in federal district court in Washington, CREW sued the National Archives and Records Administration in response to its handling of a FOIA request seeking information on the preservation or destruction of the White House visitor records at issue in the suits against Homeland Security and the Secret Service.
Judge Reggie B. Walton released his opinion in that case Monday, ruling that the National Archives could withhold many of the requested documents under the FOIA exemption that protects information typically privileged in a court case.
Many of the documents CREW requested were protected by the attorney-client privilege and other doctrines, Walton said. However, he ordered review in his chambers for a handful of documents, saying he couldn’t determine from the information NARA submitted to the court if they were being properly withheld from CREW.
In a statement CREW said, “As a result of this ruling, the public is unlikely to know the extent to which NARA supported or opposed the position of the White House that visitor records are not agency records of the Secret Service but instead are presidential records not subject to public disclosure.”