WASHINGTON -- A federal judge on Friday rejected the Bush administration's latest attempt to keep secret the identities of White House visitors and declared that the government illegally deleted Secret Service computer records.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth concluded that the deletions took place before October 2004 when the Secret Service transferred large numbers of entry and exit logs to the White House and then deleted copies of them.
The deletions ceased after the archivist to the United States instructed the Secret Service to stop the practice and after various private organizations went to court in an effort to gain access to the logs, according to papers filed in the case. The deletions go back at least as far as 2001, the government's papers added, the year President Bush took office.
Lamberth's ruling brushed aside the government's argument that revealing Secret Service logs would impede the president's ability to perform his constitutional duties.
The court said that the likelihood of harm is not great enough to justify curtailing the public disclosure goals of the Freedom of Information Act.
While the case was a setback for the Bush White House, the effect of the claim of a presidential communications privilege succeeded in dragging out the lawsuit until the end of the Bush administration.
A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, asked for the records in 2006 to determine whether nine conservative religious leaders visited the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's residence. A separate lawsuit by CREW seeks any Secret Service logs for White House visits by a Texas businessman who allegedly tried to sell access to administration officials in exchange for contributions to Bush's presidential library fund.
On Friday, CREW's chief counsel, Anne Weismann, said the group hopes the incoming Obama administration takes heed of the court's decision and ensures that Secret Service records are available to the public.
The administration's request to extend the presidential communications privilege to Secret Service logs is inconsistent with other decisions by the federal courts in Washington, D.C., Lamberth said.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the White House is reviewing the judge's opinion and is considering all legal options.
Secret Service logs have been used in investigations by Congress and federal prosecutors. For example, the logs have revealed the comings and goings of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and Clinton campaign donor Denise Rich, the wife of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who was pardoned in the closing hours of the Clinton administration.
In the spring of 2006, in the midst of an influence peddling scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the White House and the Secret Service quietly signed an agreement declaring the Secret Service logs identifying visitors to the White House are not open to the public.
Four months later, 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 OVP."
The case over the Secret Service logs is one of many legal battles in which the Bush White House resisted disclosure.
A few of the others:
-- Cheney's refusal, eventually supported by the courts, to identify the energy executives and lobbyists he met with in forging a pro-industry administration energy policy in 2001.
-- The White House's refusal to turn over to Congress documents on the politically tinged firings of nine U.S. attorneys, some of whom were investigating Republican politicians at the time they were dismissed.
-- A lawsuit in which CREW is seeking White House documents detailing problems with the White House's e-mail system.