WASHINGTON The Obama administration is refusing to release documents that would identify visitors to the White House, embracing a legal position taken by the Bush administration, according to a watchdog group that filed a federal lawsuit over access to the records.
The group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed its lawsuit after being denied access to Secret Service records, including White House entry and exit logs, that would identify coal- and energy-industry visitors.
The government's refusal to release the records appears to be at odds with President Barack Obama's pledge of transparency.
The Secret Service also turned aside a request by msnbc.com for the names of all White House visitors since Jan. 20.
In a letter, the Homeland Security Department told CREW that most of the records the group seeks are not agency records subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Instead, DHS said the records are governed by the Presidential Records Act and not subject to disclosure under the FOIA.
DHS said it had been advised by the Justice Department it generally defends U.S. government agencies in FOIA cases that releasing the requested records could reveal information protected by the presidential communications privilege.
The Bush administration fought on the same legal ground for several years in a case that is now before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that, because of CREW's lawsuit, the counsel's office is leading a review into whether to uphold the previous administration's policy of not releasing the logs. He did not have a timeframe for when that review would be done.
Gibbs said the goal was "to uphold the principle of open government" and increased transparency that Obama campaigned on. But he also said that the issue of upholding precedent from previous presidents was a consideration.
At the same time, Gibbs defended the president's right to hold meetings at the White House with undisclosed participants.
"I think there are obviously occasions in which the president is going to meet privately with advisers on topics that are of great national importance, yes," he said.
A week and a half before Obama took office, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth brushed aside the Bush administration's argument that revealing Secret Service logs would impede the president's ability to perform his constitutional duties. Lamberth said that the likelihood of harm was not great enough to justify curtailing the public disclosure goals of the FOIA.
The long-running controversy over shielding the identities of visitors to the White House and to the personal residence of the vice president is wrapped up in the influencing-peddling scandal involving now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In the spring of 2006 when various groups were trying to find out the dates of Abramoff's White House visits, the White House and the Secret Service quietly signed an agreement declaring the Secret Service logs identifying visitors to the White House were not open to the public.
Four months later, Vice President Dick Cheney's office told the Secret Service in a letter that visitor records for the vice president's personal residence "are and shall remain subject to the exclusive ownership, custody and control" of the Office of the Vice President. The controversy over Cheney involved visits by a number of conservative religious leaders to the vice president's residence.
CREW's lawsuit is before U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan, a Clinton-era appointee.