By Pete Yost
Sunday, December 2, 2007
Secret Service concerns about the release of documents related to White House visits by now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff prevent their production in a civil lawsuit, the Justice Department argues in a new court filing.
The Bush administration agreed last year to produce all responsive records about the visits "without redactions or claims of exemption," according to a court order.
But in court papers filed Friday night, administration lawyers said the Secret Service has identified a category of highly sensitive documents that cannot be publicly revealed.
"Doing so . . . would reveal sensitive information about the methods used by the Secret Service to carry out its protective function," the Justice Department argued.
The Secret Service's Sensitive Security Records are created in the course of conducting more extensive background checks on certain visitors to the White House. In sworn statements accompanying the filing, two Secret Service officers said the extra attention is paid to some visitors because of their background, "the circumstances of the visits" or both.
The Sensitive Security Records were discovered in the course of another lawsuit seeking similar records, the court papers state.
"This is an extraordinary development and it raises the specter that there were additional contacts with President Bush or other high White House officials that have yet to be disclosed," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that filed the suit. "We've alleged that the government has committed misconduct in this litigation, and frankly this is more fuel for that fire."
A response by White House spokesman Trey Bohn referred to the Secret Service, saying, "We have nothing to add to the USSS position as stated in the court filing."
The Justice Department is citing for its argument a lawsuit on a secret operation of the Cold War, the attempted raising of a sunken Soviet submarine. In a 1976 ruling, a U.S. appeals court allowed the CIA to refuse to confirm or deny its ties to Howard Hughes's submarine retrieval ship, the Glomar Explorer.
The department asked Friday to consolidate the Judicial Watch lawsuit with another seeking Secret Service records of Abramoff's White House visits. Such a move would put the consolidated lawsuit in the court of U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, a Bush appointee. The other suit, filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is being heard by Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who has taken both Republican and Democratic administrations to task during his two-decade tenure.
The government has turned over Secret Service records referring to seven White House visits by Abramoff -- including six in 2001, in the early months of the Bush administration, and the seventh in early 2004, just before Abramoff came under criminal investigation.
Abramoff is serving six years in prison on a criminal case out of Florida, where he pleaded guilty in January 2006 to charges of conspiracy, honest services fraud and tax evasion. He has not yet been sentenced on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion stemming from the influence-peddling scandal in Washington.