Judge Rejects Keeping White House Visitor Logs Private
Saturday, January 10, 2009
A federal judge yesterday rejected the Bush administration's latest attempt to keep secret the identities of White House visitors, and he declared that the government illegally deleted Secret Service computer records.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth concluded that the deletions took place before October 2004, when the Secret Service transferred large numbers of entry and exit logs to the White House and then deleted copies of them.
The deletions ceased after the archivist to the United States instructed the Secret Service to stop the practice and after various private organizations went to court in an effort to gain access to the logs, according to papers filed in the case. The deletions date to at least 2001, the government's papers added, the year President Bush took office.
Lamberth's ruling brushed aside the government's argument that revealing Secret Service logs would impede the president's ability to perform his constitutional duties.
The judge said that the likelihood of harm is not great enough to justify curtailing the public disclosure goals of the Freedom of Information Act.
While the case was a setback for the Bush White House, the effect of the claim of a presidential communications privilege succeeded in dragging out the lawsuit until the end of the Bush administration.
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked for the records in 2006 to determine whether nine conservative religious leaders visited the White House and Vice President Cheney's residence. A separate lawsuit by CREW seeks any Secret Service logs for White House visits by a Texas businessman who allegedly tried to sell access to administration officials in exchange for contributions to Bush's presidential library fund.
Anne Weismann, CREW's chief counsel, said yesterday that the group hopes the incoming Obama administration will take heed of the court's decision and ensure that Secret Service records are available to the public.
The administration's request to extend the presidential communications privilege to Secret Service logs is inconsistent with other decisions by the federal courts in Washington, Lamberth said.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the White House is reviewing the judge's opinion and is considering all legal options.
Secret Service logs have been used in investigations by Congress and federal prosecutors. For example, the logs have revealed the comings and goings of former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and Clinton campaign donor Denise Rich, the wife of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who was pardoned in the closing hours of the Clinton administration.
In the spring of 2006, amid an influence-peddling scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the White House and the Secret Service quietly signed an agreement declaring that the logs are not open to the public.
Four months later, Cheney's office told the Secret Service in a letter that visitor records for the vice president's personal residence "are and shall remain subject to the exclusive ownership, custody and control of" the office of the vice president.