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White House Officials Debated Whether to Call Visitor Records “Confidential”

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON: A newly disclosed effort to keep Vice President Dick Cheney’s visitor records secret is the latest White House push to make sure the public does not learn who has been meeting with top officials in the Bush administration.

Over the past year, lawyers for President George W. Bush and Cheney have directed the Secret Service to maintain the confidentiality of visitor entry and exit logs, declaring them to be presidential records, exempt from a law requiring their disclosure to whoever asks to see them.

The drive to keep the logs secret, the administration says, is essential to assuring that the president and vice president receive candid advice to carry out their duties.

Cabinet officers often do not want to give up their meeting calendars to journalists. They have no choice under the Freedom of Information Act, which provides public access to some records kept by federal agencies.

But the FOIA disclosure law, which does not apply to Congress, also does not apply to presidential records.

The Bush administration has exploited that difference, triggering a battle in the courts.

The administration is seeking dismissal of two lawsuits by liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that demand Secret Service visitor logs.

In trying to get the cases thrown out, the Justice Department has filed documents in court outlining a behind-the-scenes debate over whether Secret Service records are subject to public disclosure. The discussions date back at least to the administration of President Bush’s father and involve the Justice Department and the National Archives as well as the White House and the Secret Service.

The government’s court filings show that the Bush White House focused on the issue in the months before Election Day 2004.

Discussions moved into high gear when the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal prompted news organizations and private groups to demand that the administration turn over Secret Service records of visitors to the White House complex and the vice president’s residence.

There was precedent for the demands.

During the Clinton administration, Republican-controlled congressional committees obtained Secret Service visitor logs while conducting investigations of the president and first lady.

Christopher Lehane, a former special assistant counsel to President Bill Clinton and press secretary to then-Vice President Al Gore, points out the political implications of the Bush administration campaign to close off access to the records.

“The question it raises is ‘what are these guys hiding?’” said Lehane, now a Democratic consultant. “They can live with it because they’ve only got a year or so left, but it doesn’t do a lot for public confidence in open government.”

Bush’s term ends in January 2009. He cannot run for president again because of term limits.

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Thursday, “I can’t comment on a case in litigation, and I can’t speak to the decisions made by other administrations.”

The Bush administration says it is standing on principle.

“It is important that the president be able to receive candid advice from his staff and other members of the administration,” Fratto said. “To ensure that he receives candid advice, it is essential as a general matter that the advice remains confidential.”

In a declaration filed in court a week ago, Cheney’s deputy chief of staff, Claire O’Donnell, stated that “systematic public release of the information regarding when and with whom the vice president and vice presidential personnel conduct meetings would impinge on the ability of the OVP (office of the vice president) to gather information in confidence and perform its essential functions, including assisting the vice president in his critical roles of advising and assisting the president.”

In May 2006, the Secret Service and the White House signed a memorandum of understanding designating visitor records as presidential.

They are “not the records of an ‘agency’ subject to the Freedom of Information Act,” says the agreement that was not disclosed until months later, in late 2006. The records are “at all times under the exclusive legal custody and control of the White House.”

Four months after the memorandum of agreement, Cheney’s counsel wrote the Secret Service, stating that visitor records for the vice president’s personal residence “are and shall remain subject to the exclusive ownership, custody and control of OVP.” It asked that any such records be returned to Cheney’s office.

The Sept. 13, 2006, date on the Cheney letter coincides with requests by The Washington Post seeking records on the vice president’s visitors under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Justice Department filed the Cheney letter last Friday in one of the lawsuits brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is invoking the FOIA law in seeking the identities of conservative religious leaders who visited the White House complex and the vice president’s residence. The group, which represents Valerie Plame and her husband in their lawsuit against Cheney and other key administration figures in the leak of Plame’s CIA identity, also is seeking White House visitor logs in the Abramoff scandal.


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