White House Refuses to Release Visitor Logs

7/29/2009

On July 22, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for withholding White House visitor logs. The logs pertain to individuals who visited the White House to discuss health care policy. Some see the administration’s refusal to disclose the logs as a continuation of Bush administration secrecy.

CREW filed the lawsuit after being denied the records in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. In response to the lawsuit, White House legal counsel Gregory Craig sent a letter to CREW with a list of White House visitors “reflected in the relevant visitor records,” but he makes no claim that the list is complete. Further, the letter maintained the administration’s position that the logs are only subject to “discretionary release.” CREW rejected the letter and said it did not satisfy the FOIA request.

The Obama administration had refused to make such logs public previously. In June, CREW sued for the release of logs related to meetings with coal executives after the records were denied as part of an earlier FOIA request. In both the coal and the healthcare cases, the administration argues that the visitor logs are presidential records not subject to FOIA.

During his presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama made White House communications a central component of his transparency platform, regardless to whether the records held presidential or agency provenance. As part of his “plan to change Washington,” Obama criticized the Bush administration for crafting policy based on secret meetings. The campaign website remarked that “Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force of oil and gas lobbyists met secretly to develop national energy policy.” Further, the site stated that the Obama administration “will nullify the Bush attempts to make the timely release of presidential records more difficult.”

The Bush administration repeatedly withheld White House visitor logs and fought in court against disclosure, claiming that they were presidential records, not records of an agency subject to FOIA. That administration attempted to withhold visitor logs concerning lobbyists such as Jack Abramoff, Stephen Payne, and religious conservative leaders. White House visitor logs are maintained by the Secret Service, a component of DHS, which is subject to FOIA. U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth twice ruled against the Bush administration on the issue, once in December 2007 and again on appeal in January 2009. Lamberth stated, “Shielding such general information as the identities of visitors would considerably undermine the purposes of FOIA to foster openness and accountability in government.”

The Obama administration appealed the January decision again, rather than changing course. In the Bush-era case, the Obama administration argues that the logs would disclose information properly protected as presidential communications, an argument originally advanced by the Bush administration.

Although the Bush administration lost twice in court, official White House policy was changed to try and protect visitor logs. The Bush White House issued a Memorandum of Understanding with the Secret Service in 2007 that establishes mutual agreement that visitor logs are not agency records because “once the visit ends, the information … has no continuing usefulness to the Secret Service.” The Obama administration has stated that it is reviewing its current policies, but it is unknown whether it will alter this agreement.