A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that White House visitor logs maintained by the U.S. Secret Service are agency records and, as a result, are subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act if not covered by one of the law's many exemptions.
In a setback for the Obama administration, which had argued that the records did not have to be made public, U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell, in a 19-page opinion, sided with Judicial Watch, a Washington-based public watchdog organization, in a case challenging Secret Service arguments that the visitors' logs were presidential records and, as a result, exempt from public disclosure.
In her ruling, Judge Howell, whom President Obama named to the bench in July 2010, said the Secret Service had not met its burden to show that the requested material either fell within an FOIA exemption or would have been unreasonably burdensome to search.
"While there are some limits on 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," the judge said.
"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 said.
Judicial Watch had asked the court to order the release of Secret Service logs of White House visitors from Jan. 20, 2009, to August, 10, 2009. The request came after the Obama administration had claimed that the visitor logs "are not agency records subject to the FOIA."
The watchdog group said in its Dec. 7, 2009, complaint that the White House argument had been "litigated and rejected repeatedly."
Jill Farrell, spokeswoman for the group, said tens of thousands of visitor logs are being withheld from disclosure by the Obama administration and that they are now subject to disclosure under FOIA. She said the Obama administration previously had released visitor information at its own discretion, the timing and specifics of which, it insisted, was not subject to court review.
"This is a major victory for open government and an embarrassing defeat for the Obama administration," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. "This administration will now have to release all records of all visitors to the White House — or explain why White House visits should be kept secret under law.
"It is refreshing to see the court remind this administration that the rule of law applies to it," Mr. Fitton said.
In September 2009, Mr. Obama began the voluntarily release of the names of people who had visited the executive complex, reversing a long-standing policy of both Democratic and Republican presidents.
The Judicial Watch lawsuit targeted those records before the policy change.
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