Nearly three years after Judicial Watch first filed a lawsuit trying to obtain Obama White House visitor logs, we are still in court battling for their release. Last week, our attorney Jim Peterson went before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to make our case.
As summarized by Bloomberg:
The names of people vetted by the U.S. Secret Service for White House visits are agency records that must be made public, a lawyer for Judicial Watch Inc. told a federal appeals court in Washington.
Judicial Watch, a Washington-based legal activist organization, asked a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals today to uphold a district judge’s order requiring the Secret Service to process its request for the names of people who visited the White House during the first nine months of President Barack Obama‘s term under the Freedom of Information Act.
“This is a routine case,” James Peterson, a lawyer for Judicial Watch, said during the argument. “This is a FOIA request to an agency.”
Let’s just take a moment to review how we ended up in the appellate court, because this has been one wild ride.
With great fanfare, the Obama White House announced in September 2009 that from that moment forward it would “voluntarily” release certain select White House visitor logs to the public. White House officials called this a landmark victory for transparency. We called it a publicity stunt.
After all, can it truly be considered transparency if the White House gets to pick and choose which visitor logs the public can see and which can be kept secret without explanation, justification or judicial oversight? And then there was the matter of the approximately 500,000 visitor logs from the first nine months of the Obama presidency that were kept under tight lock and key (and remain so to this day).
Judicial Watch fired off a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain these records and the request was denied. But this time, rather than citing exemptions to FOIA as the reason why they would not be released, the Obama White House argued that the visitor logs – in total – are not Secret Service agency records, therefore they are not even subject to FOIA law!
Judicial Watch is not one to stand by in the face of lawless secrecy by any administration. Just like we did with the Bush administration, when we obtained the visitor logs detailing convicted felon and lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s visits to the Bush White House, we went public with our criticisms of the Obama White House.
And that’s when the battle over the logs took an interesting turn. As I wrote recently in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
In October 2009, one of our investigators received a call from a White House lawyer who wanted to express some concern about the accuracy of our press statement. He invited us to a meeting at the White House.
I am convinced that the White House thought we’d be intimidated by getting such a phone call, although we saw through the tactic and happily accepted the invitation.
On Oct. 21, 2009, my Judicial Watch colleagues and I met with senior White House officials led by Norm Eisen. [Eisen was then-Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government or, more accurately, Obama’s “Ethics Czar.”] During the meeting, Eisen offered to make some superficial accommodations to us on the visitor logs issue and encouraged us to publicly praise the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency. We were told that the White House would praise us in return.
We shook hands at the end of the meeting, but the Obama White House refused to abandon its legally indefensible contention that the visitors logs are not subject to FOIA.
We weren’t fooled, intimidated, or bought off, and we sued the Obama administration on December 7, 2009.
Our position, as articulated in our original complaint, is simple: The United States Secret Service maintains White House visitor logs. And because the Secret Service is a federal agency, the records must be subject to disclosure under the FOIA. As JW pointed out in its original lawsuit, the Obama administration’s claim that the visitor logs are not agency records “has been litigated and rejected repeatedly” by the courts.
Fortunately, our legal argument found favor in the federal courts. In a historic victory for Judicial Watch and an embarrassing defeat for the Obama administration, a federal court ruled last August that Secret Service White House visitor logs are indeed agency records that are subject to disclosure under FOIA!
You can read federal Judge Beryl Howell’s point by point refutation of the Obama administration’s arguments here. But ultimately, Judge Howell concluded that “the proper course of action by the Secret Service is duly to process [Judicial Watch’s] FOIA request, disclose all segregable, nonexempt records, and then assert specific FOIA exemptions for all records it seeks to withhold.”
In other words, release or explain.
The Obama White House chose another path. They appealed the ruling and here we are in the U.S. Court of Appeals.
I want to congratulate our legal team for all of their hard work and persistence over these visitor logs. This has been a three-year battle against an Obama White House that has massive resources at its disposal and our team has been more than equal to the task. The rule of law is on our side, and we hope the appellate court will uphold the lower court’s decision and that the visitor logs will be released, finally, pursuant to the law – not this or any other president’s whimsy.
In the meantime, please remember that Justice Department lawyers from the “most transparent administration in history” were in court last week arguing to obstruct public access to the logs of White House visitors.