The federal government is arguing that previous court rulings applying the Freedom of Information Act to records such as the visitor logs at the White House are incorrect, and President Obama’s administration should be allowed to withhold from the public the information it chooses.
A new government brief filed in a court dispute over the records argues, instead, that people with questions about who visits the White House should go to the White House website and ask for the information, and if the president agrees, it could be released.
The April 21 brief filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia insisted the court should hold that “visitor records are presidential records, particularly given the fact that the White House is voluntarily disclosing the records to the public.”
Further, the records assembled and used by the United States Secret Service are not even in the “custody” of the federal agency, since they are transferred periodically onto computer disk and given to the White House, the filing said.
“The Obama administration would undermine a key transparency law in order to keep White House visitor logs secret,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which has been fighting for more than a decade over visitor logs.
“Only the Obama administration could offer to release pre-scrubbed White House visitor logs while withholding tens of thousands of other records and call it transparency,” he said.
“President Obama has violated his campaign promises of openness and transparency. We hope the court will do what is had done on previous occasions and uphold FOIA law,” he said.
This visitor-log dispute with the Obama administration began last year when Judicial Watch first requested records of who is coming in and out of the White House, then filed a lawsuit.
Judicial Watch, a nonpartisan, political watchdog group, originally began seeking public disclosure of White House visitors 15 years ago. Through multiple legal victories, Judicial Watch uncovered records of Monica Lewinsky’s visits during the Clinton administration and of lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s visits during the Bush years.
The latest brief, however, is a continuation of the Obama White House efforts to stonewall requests for public information, the organization said.
Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request last August for the White House visitor logs from Obama’s first day in office until the present. The Department of Homeland Security denied the request. An appeal followed and the lawsuit was filed early this year.
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” Fitton told WND. “It is of interest to know who the White House and who public officials are meeting with as they conduct government business.
“By the White House refusing to abide by the FOIA law, there’s no way for citizens to go to court and hold them accountable,” he said.
Fitton said the White House plan to “voluntarily” disclose information leaves wide open the option to withhold virtually anything.
The government brief, filed by Assistant Attorney General Tony West, Assistance Branch Director John Tyler and Brad Rosenberg, said the logs are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, even though Judicial Watch had pointed out that the claim “has been litigated and rejected repeatedly” by courts.
Instead, the brief contends, Judicial Watch could request release of documents it wants from the public website, and the White House, before releasing anything, would filter out records with “particularly sensitive and private information,” including phone numbers and Service Service instructions. Also filtered would be records pertaining to personal safety of White House pass holders; “national security,” “personal guests” of the president, his family, the vice president and his family; visits that “do not involve official or political business”; and “particularly sensitive meetings.”
The government filing is trying to prevent release of visitor logs dealing with Obama’s guests in the White House from Jan. 20, 2009, to the present.
Judicial Watch had argued weeks earlier, “At issue here is whether Secret Service visitor logs are agency records subject to the Freedom of Information Act … To date, every court that has reached this issue has concluded that the requested documents are agency records and must be processed in response to a properly submitted FOIA request. As no disputes of material fact exist as to the nature of the records, summary judgment as to this straightforward legal issue should be entered now.”
The complaint argued the logs are created by the Secret Service and remain under “agency control.”
Judicial Watch also noted that the U.S. Secret Service had released the visitor logs in response to previous FOIA requests from Judicial Watch and other parties, further demonstrating that the records are under the control of the U.S. Secret Service and subject to FOIA.
Obama’s attorneys, however, argued that the decisions in previous court cases were wrong. And, they said, the records are bundled and given to the White House by the Secret Service.
“The Obama White House admits in the new court filing that it is taking records from the Secret Service in order to ensure that they are not disclosed under FOIA,” the Judicial Watch report said.
The organization also reported on Oct. 27, 2009, “at the request of the White House, Judicial Watch staff visited with senior White House officials led by Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government, to discuss Judicial Watch’s pursuit of the visitor logs. During the meeting, White House officials offered to make some accommodations to Judicial Watch on the visitor logs and encouraged Judicial Watch to publicly praise the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency. However, the White House refused to abandon its legally indefensible contention that the visitor logs are not subject to FOIA law, prompting Judicial Watch’s lawsuit.”
The government argues that the visitor information is only “temporarily” in the “custody” of the Secret Service.
Even if the records are subject to FOIA, the government also argues, the records should be exempt “due to national security.”
The government further picks at the semantics of the argument.
“Although FOIE defines the separate terms ‘agency’ and ‘record,’ the statute does not specify when ‘records’ are properly deemed to belong to a FOIA ‘agency,’” the filing said.
Lastly, there are just too many records to go through for the government to be able to respond, the filing said.