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A federal judge has ordered the Secret Service to release eight months of White House visitor logs it had previously kept hidden, an estimated “tens of thousands” of records from Obama’s first year in office.
U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell – an Obama appointee – earlier this week ruled in favor of the government watchdog organization Judicial Watch, which had argued the Jan. 20-Sept. 15, 2009, visitor logs were agency records subject to public inspection through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
While the Secret Service had argued that being compelled to release visitor logs under FOIA might compromise “national security interests,” Judge Howell ruled that the White House already has authority to exempt certain records that might prove sensitive – so long as it provides legal explanation for the exemption – so the adminstration has no excuse for refusing Judicial Watch’s FOIA request.
“This is a major victory for open government and an embarrassing defeat for the Obama administration,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, in a statement responding to the ruling. “This administration will now have to release all records of all visitors to the White House – or explain why White House visits should be kept secret under law. It is refreshing to see the court remind this administration that the rule of law applies to it.”
In July of 2009, the White House announced a new policy touting its own “transparency” for voluntarily releasing the records from Sept. 15 onward. The first eight months of 2009’s logs, however, would only be available to “narrow and specific” requests.
But, Judicial Watch argued, there’s a difference between “voluntarily” releasing records and actually being accountable to the people.
“The White House insisted that it could release visitor information at its own discretion, the timing and specifics of which [were] not subject to court review,” Fitton wrote in an update on the case. “And despite White House misinformation to the contrary, tens of thousands of visitor logs are being withheld from disclosure by the Obama administration.
“These records,” Fitton continued, “are now subject to disclosure under FOIA.”
According to court documents from the case, the White House argued that the court’s oversight of its record releasing policy could breach the constitutional separation of powers and would pose “a substantial intrusion on the confidentiality necessary for the president and vice president to discharge their constitutional duties.”
Furthermore, the administration argued, it would be “virtually impossible” for the Secret Service to process the plaintiff’s FOIA request with respect to records created between Jan. 20, 2009, and Sept. 15, 2009, without potentially compromising national security interests.
Howell, however, dismissed the separation-of-powers argument and stated, “To the extent that a visitor record might, if publicly released, disclose confidential presidential communications, the Secret Service has a ready recourse in Exemption 5 [of FOIA],” which exempts privileged documents from disclosure.
“Therefore,” Howell continued, “the proper course of action by the Secret Service is duly to process [Judicial Watchs’s] FOIA request, disclose all segregable, nonexempt records, and then assert specific FOIA exemptions for all records it seeks to withhold.”
The ruling gives the Secret Service 20 days to meet with Judicial Watch to settle upon a plan for releasing the records.
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