(CN) - The Secret Service need not disclose recent logs of White House visitors since it would effectively reveal the president's calendar, the D.C. Circuit ruled.
Through its White House Access Control System (WHACS), the Secret Service keeps a record of every person's entrance and exit into the White House complex, which includes the White House, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the surrounding grounds and the New Executive Office Building.
In 2009, the government watchdogs at Judicial Watch had asked the Secret Service for the past seven months' worth of "all official visitors logs and/or other records concerning visits made to the White House."
The Secret Service denied the request, claiming that such logs are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) but rather the far more restrictive Presidential Records Act (PRA).
It referred Judicial Watch to the White House's voluntary disclosure policy implemented that same year, which discloses all nonsensitive WHACS records 90 to 120 days after they are made.
Unsatisfied with this disclosure, Judicial Watch moved to compel under the FOIA, and a federal judge ruled
for the nonprofit on cross-motions for summary judgment.
A three-judge panel with the D.C. Circuit reversed, however, Friday.
"In both the 1974 FOIA Amendments and the 1978 Presidential Records Act, Congress made clear that it did not want documents like the appointment calendars of the president and his close advisors to be subject to disclosure under FOIA," Judge Merrick Garland wrote for the court. "Granting Judicial Watch's request for certain visitor records, however, would effectively disclose the contents of those calendars."
Since the 1984 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, Congress made acceptance of Secret Service protection mandatory for the president and vice president.
"The president thus has little choice but to permit the Secret Service to reconstruct his appointment calendars," Garland wrote. "Hence, if the Secret Service must disclose WHACS records, a FOIA requester will effectively receive copies of those calendars."
Such an expansive reading of the FOIA "could substantially affect the President's ability to meet confidentially with foreign leaders, agency officials, or members of the public," the 46-page opinion stated. "And that could render FOIA a potentially serious congressional intrusion into the conduct of the president's daily operations."
To preserve the separation of powers, WHACS records should not be considered agency records under the FOIA, but presidential records subject to the PRA, the court ruled.
The judges added that "there is a subset of WHACS records, however, that reveals nothing about visits to the Office of the President. Those records are generated by visits to components of the White House complex that are not part of that office, and that are themselves 'agencies' covered by FOIA."
These agencies are the Office of Management and Budget and the Council on Environmental Quality.
Such records "plainly do not fall within the coverage of the Presidential Records Act," Garland wrote. "The Secret Service has not suggested that disclosing WHACS records relating to those offices would undermine its ability to protect the president. And if disclosing particular records did threaten the president's security, we are confident they would be shielded from disclosure by one or another FOIA exemption."
Garland remanded this final issue to the District Court for further discovery.