White House visitor logs are not subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a federal judge ruled Friday, blocking the public from reviewing the records.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in a unanimous decision in Judicial Watch v. U.S. Secret Service that visitor logs for the office of the president are not agency records and therefore not subject to FOIA requests.
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Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, originally sued the Secret Service in 2009 after the agency refused to turn over seven months of visitor logs from the White House.
Judge Merrick Garland Thursday that making the logs public record could "substantially affect the president’s ability to meet confidentially with foreign leaders, agency officials, or members of the public. And that could render FOIA a potentially serious congressional intrusion into the conduct of the president’s daily operations."
Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said Friday’s ruling keeps the public in the dark and the government unaccountable.
"A president that doesn’t want Americans, under law, to know who his visitors are is a president who doesn’t want to be accountable," Fitton said in a statement. "The appellate court decision punches another hole in the Freedom of Information Act, the law which allows Americans to know what their government is up to. We are strongly considering an appeal. The legal gymnastics in this unprecedented decision shows that President Obama is not only the one willing to rewrite laws without going through Congress."
The Obama administration, which the president declared would be the "most transparent administration in history," often points to its release of the White House visitor logs as a capstone of its transparency efforts.
However, the administration’s policy is not codified into law. The White House does not have to release complete visitor logs, nor would future administrations be compelled to continue the practice.
Other watchdog groups, such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also decried the decision.
"White House visitor records have proven of enormous value to the public in exposing the outside influences brought to bear on presidential decisions and policies," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. "With this ruling, that window on the White House is now shut. Although President Obama has chosen to make the visitor logs public, future presidents can freely leave the public in the dark."