WASHINGTON (CN) – A government watchdog group can access White House visitor logs dating from President Barack Obama’s inauguration to the present under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal judge ruled.
Judicial Watch describes itself as a “conservative, nonpartisan American educational foundation that promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and law.”
In August 2009, the organization sent an FOIA request to the U.S. Secret Service, seeking access to “all official visitor logs and/or other records concerning visits made to the White House from January 20, 2009 to the present.”
About a month later, the Secret Service refused to turn over the requested documents, which it maintains. It said it had two sets of documents encompassing Access Control Records System records and Workers and Visitors Entry System records, but that they “are not agency records subject to the FOIA.”
After Judicial Watch sued, it and the Secret Service cross-moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the visitor logs are in fact subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
The Secret Service advanced three arguments for its position: that the records are presidential record and not agency records subject to the FOIA; that such an FOIA request would inspire a serious constitutional separation-of-powers question; and that, even if the requested documents are subject to the FOIA, it would be “virtually impossible to process without creating an unacceptable risk that sensitive records implicating national security concerns would be inappropriately released.”
But U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell, who was nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2010, rejected each of the arguments.
Addressing the issue of whether the visitor logs were presidential or agency records, Howell observed that the Secret Services sought to emphasize the White House’s role in providing much of the information that makes up the records.
“By focusing on the contents of the records, the Secret Service overlooks the process by which the records are generated,” Howell wrote. “The distinction is important because the FOIA deals with documents, not information.”
As for the separation-of-powers issue raised, Howell said she was “skeptical” of the agency’s underlying premise. She also noted that the Secret Service has ready recourse through exemptions written into the FOIA to protect documents that might disclose confidential presidential communications.
While there are some limits as to what an agency must do to satisfy its FOIA obligations, “the defendant has not met its burden to establish that the search requested by the plaintiff is so unreasonable as to require a blanket rejection,” Howell wrote.
“Therefore, the proper course of action by the Secret Service is duly to process plaintiff’s FOIA request, disclose all segregable, nonexempt records, and then assert specific FOIA exemptions for all records it seeks to withhold,” she added.
Howell also ordered the parties to meet within 20 days of her decision and prepare a joint report proposing a schedule for the remainder of the litigation.
The judge said she hopes the parties can “resolve this case without the court’s further intervention or to narrow the requests at issue.”