Court rules White House visitor logs can remain secret

A federal appeals court has ruled that the White House can keep secret some records of visitors who enter the building.

In a unanimous decision on Friday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that visitor logs for the Office of the President, at the center of the White House, are not subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Anti-secrecy organizations criticized the ruling as a barrier to public oversight. 

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“Decisions like this turn FOIA from a transparency law into a secrecy law,” Tom Fitton, president of the right-leaning Judicial Watch, told The Hill. He added that the decision was “unprecedented.” 

Records for other offices on the White House complex, however, such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality, are subject to public disclosure requests, the court ruled.

The appeals court ruling overturns a district court case brought by Judicial Watch, which sued the Secret Service in 2009 for not releasing seven months’ worth of visitor logs.

The dispute centered on whether the visitor logs amounted to “agency records,” which FOIA requires to be accessible to public requests, except in certain circumstances.

Judge Merrick Garland wrote in the court’s opinion that classifying White House visitor logs as “agency records” 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.”

He added, “Congress did make clear that it intended to place documents like the President’s appointment calendar beyond the reach of FOIA.”

Transparency advocates worried about the precedent that would be set by 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,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which joined the case. “With this ruling, that window on the White House is now shut.”

The Obama administration has voluntary released its logs of White House visitors, but even those have been a point of contention. The records lack additional identifying details beyond a visitor’s name, can often include typos and may include names of people cleared to enter the building who never actually showed up.

Fitton said that Judicial Watch was “strongly considering” appealing the ruling.

“The option of doing nothing is unlikely,” he said.