Today, in two separate CREW lawsuits, the U.S. District Court for D.C. ruled that the White House visitor records maintained by the Secret Service are not subject to the presidential communications privilege and must be disclosed. CREW is seeking records of visits made by nine conservative religious leaders as well as records of visits by Stephen Payne, who was caught on videotape attempting to sell access to top White House officials in return for contributions to the Bush presidential library.
In an earlier ruling U.S. Chief District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth rejected the government’s claim that the records were presidential and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Once ordered to process CREW’s requests, the Bush administration argued it could not even disclose whether it had responsive records because doing so would reveal information protected by the presidential communications privilege. Judge Lamberth rejected this sweeping and unprecedented argument finding that hiding the identities of those who visit the White House from the public undermines the FOIA’s goal of fostering openness and accountability in government.
Judge Lamberth also granted, in large part, CREW’s claim under the Federal Records Act (FRA) that the Secret Service had impermissibly destroyed federal records. At the direction of the White House, the Secret Service destroyed visitor records without retaining copies. The court found the archivist had violated his legal obligation to ask the attorney general to initiate legal action to recover the deleted records and ordered the archivist to do so now.
Anne Weismann, CREW’s chief counsel, stated, “CREW’s victory today reaffirms the public’s right to know what the government is doing. We are pleased that the judicial branch has ripped the cloak of secrecy away from the White House and we hope the incoming administration takes heed of the court’s decision and ensures Secret Service records are available to the public.”