President Obama and his successors in the Oval Office are not obligated to make public the names of individuals visiting the White House, according to a decision of the federal Circuit Court for the District of Columbia made public Friday.
The case was brought by Judicial Watch, the government watchdog nonprofit that has been fighting a long legal battle seeking to force release of the White House visitor logs as public records under the Freedom of Information Act.
But in a decision that is drawing intense criticism from across the ideological spectrum, the circuit court said the president has a "constitutional perogative" not to tell the American people who he or his staff meets with in the White House.
The court said the president has such a prerogative because he is not covered by the FOIA and because of "special policy considerations" that allow exemption of visitor logs from classification as agency records subject to release under the public records law.
President Obama began making public some of the White House visitor logs in 2009, but refused a Judicial Watch request for all of the logs.
Administration spokesmen have often pointed to the partial release of the logs to support the president's claim that his is "the most transparent administration in history."
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton was extremely disappointed by the decision, saying "a president that doesn't want Americans, under law, to know who his visitors are is a president who doesn't want to be accountable. The appellate court decision punches another hole in the Freedom of Information Act, the law which allows Americans to know what their government is up to."
Fitton's group is considering filing an appeal, which would be to the Supreme Court. There is no guarantee that the high court would accept the case.
"The legal gymnastics in this unprecedented decision shows that President Obama is not only one willing rewrite laws without going through Congress. And this legal fight, in which President Obama is fighting tooth and nail full disclosure under law of his White House visitors, further exposes his big lie that his administration is the most transparent in history. The silver lining is that at least the appellate court opened up the records of tens of thousands of White House visits that Obama was trying to keep secret," Fitton said.
The Obama administration is not solely responsible for the status of the logs, however, as the court repeatedly cited in its decision a 2006 memorandum of understanding between President George W. Bush and the U.S. Secret Service, which has custody of the records.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, another nonprofit watchdog group that, like Judicial Watch, often focuses on FOIA-related issues, pointed to the MOU's role in the decision:
"Central to the court's ruling was a 2006 memorandum of understanding (MOU) the White House and Secret Service entered into after CREW made requests and then sued for access to the visitor logs. That MOU specified that White House visitor records are controlled at all times by the White House. The timing and circumstances surrounding the creation of the MOU strongly suggest it was manufactured solely to buttress the government's litigation posture, but the D.C. Circuit refused to consider the government's motives."
Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, said the "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. With this ruling, that window on the White House is now shut."
Mark Tapscott is executive editor of the Washington Examiner.