WASHINGTON - U.S. Secret Service records of visitors to the White House, except those pertaining to people visiting the president's office, must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal appeals court ruled.
Congress didn't want to impinge on executive branch authority by requiring disclosure of people who meet with the president in his office, Circuit Judge Merrick Garland wrote for a three-judge panel in Washington.
"In order to avoid substantial separation of powers questions, we conclude that Congress did not intend to authorize FOIA requesters to obtain indirectly from the Secret Service information that it had expressly barred requesters from obtaining directly from the president," Garland wrote.
Records of visitors to most of the White House complex are agency records subject to FOIA, the court ruled. The court could have used disclosure exemptions in FOIA to protect the confidentiality of the most sensitive presidential meetings, instead of putting them completely out of reach of the open records law, said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the Washington-based legal activist group that filed the suit leading to today's ruling.
"A president who doesn't want this information available is a president that doesn't want to be held accountable," Fitton said in a phone interview. "We're considering an appeal."
Brian Leary, a spokesman for the Secret Service, didn't immediately respond to phone and email requests for comment on the ruling.
Judicial Watch's suit sought the names of people who visited the White House during the first seven months of President Barack Obama's first term.
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.
In August 2011, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, an Obama appointee, ordered the agency to process the group's data request.
The appeals panel decision narrows the pool of people subject to disclosure to those who visited a part of the White House other than the Office of the President.
Former President George W. Bush also fought to keep such visitor records private. Obama said Sept. 4, 2009, that his administration would begin releasing the visitor logs after being sued by at least one watchdog group for details on whom government officials were meeting with.
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.
Fitton said there's no way to check the administration's fidelity to its disclosure pledge except through FOIA requests.
Judicial Watch describes itself as "a conservative, non-partisan educational foundation (that) promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law. "