Obama Visitor Logs Must Be Public, Lawyer Tells Court

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.”

The dispute involves what the Secret Service says are about 500,000 records of visitors to the White House from the day Obama took office until September 2009, when the administration began posting visitor data on the White House website.

The Secret Service says it doesn’t control the data it uses to conduct background checks before a visit. Once a visit is complete, the agency turns that information over the White House and the Office of the Vice President, which it argues retains “exclusive legal custody” of the information. The data are presidential records, not agency records, Mark Stern, a Justice Department lawyer, told the judges.

Potential Nominees

Two of the judges today suggested that if FOIA applies to the records then the president may no longer be able to keep the names of potential appointees he interviews from becoming public.

“The president will not be able to meet with the person he wants to appoint before disclosing it to the world,” U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland said.

Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is among a dozen media companies and organizations that filed a legal brief supporting Judicial Watch’s position.

On Aug. 17, 2011, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, an Obama appointee, ruled that the Secret Service possessed the records and ordered the agency to process Judicial Watch’s data request.

Watchdog Group

Obama announced on Sept. 4, 2009, that his administration would begin releasing the logs after being sued by at least one watchdog group for the details on who government officials were meeting with. Former President George W. Bush also fought to keep such visitor records private.

The White House says that since then it has released 2.5 million visitor records, according to the administration’s website.

As many as 100,000 people visit the White House every month, including tour groups. The administration said it intends to release all names except in cases involving national security or when the visit is confidential, such as a presidential interview with a potential Supreme Court nominee.

The case is Judicial Watch Inc. v. U.S. Secret Service, 11-5282, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Washington).

(Updates with excerpt from hearing in third paragraph.)
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