Transparency in government is among the few remaining issues on the national public policy agenda that generate nearly unanimous agreement across the ideological spectrum. For that reason, the decision by the U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia in Judicial Watch, Inc. v U.S. Secret Service that White House visitor logs are not public records subject to the Freedom of Information Act is doubly surprising and disappointing. It is difficult to conceive of a federal record of greater public interest than the names of who is getting face-time with the chief executive and his aides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It’s not for nothing that the presidential residence is called “the peoples’ house” and the president, his aides and his family are merely temporary occupants with a four-year business lease.
Although it had antecedents during the previous Republican administration of President George W. Bush, the legal trail in the present case began in 2009 when the conservative Judicial Watch watchdog non-profit filed suit in federal court after the U.S. Secret Service denied the group’s FOIA request for copies of the official White House Visitors Log. It is true the FOIA specifically exempted the president’s daily calendar, but the signup sheets of visitors and the officials with whom they meet that are maintained by the Secret Service are not part of that calendar.
The exemption also didn’t prevent the Obama White House from partially releasing the logs beginning in September 2009 and then regularly heralding such releases thereafter as further evidence of President Obama’s repeated claim that his is “the most transparent administration in history.” That claim is especially curious in view of the fact that Judicial Watch won its case in federal district court and only had to contest it at the appellate level because “the most transparent administration in history” appealed for the purpose of maintaining its claim that the logs are not public records and disclosure is strictly at the option of the president.
The administration’s determination to appeal the case may be attributable in part to the IRS scandal, which has been fueled in part by media reports concerning multiple White House visits by top officials of the tax agency that has admitted harassing Tea Party and other conservative groups seeking non-profit exemptions. Those visits were listed on the visitor logs that were made public by the Obama White House after September 2009.
Fitton said Judicial Watch is strongly considering appealing the decision and described the administration’s actions as evidence of a “president that doesn't want Americans, under law, to know who his visitors are,” and that Obama “is a president who doesn't want to be accountable.” Similarly, Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal non-profit watchdog group, said “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. With this ruling, that window on the White House is now shut."