In a potentially devastating blow to transparency, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled Friday that the executive branch can choose not to release White House visitor logs.
The court ruling was in reaction to a lawsuit from Judicial Watch seeking thousands of records not voluntarily disclosed by the Obama administration.
"It's a setback, they punched another hole through the Freedom of Information Act in seemingly blind deference to [the] president's desire that none of his officials be subject to disclosure under the law," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told U.S. News.
The White House began voluntarily releasing some visitor logs dated from Sept. 15, 2009, after a district court ruled in favor of a lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which sought mandatory disclosure.
CREW worries the Friday ruling could be used to torpedo hard-won transparency.
"President Obama can [now] stop making visitor logs public and future presidents are free to keep visitor logs secret," CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan told U.S. News.
"The reason this is a problem is that the visitor logs provide the public information on who's influencing White House policy," Sloan said. "Now we won't know who's influencing the White House."
Sloan doesn't believe Obama will terminate his administration's periodic posting of visitor logs, but fears future administrations might.
In contrast, Fitton believes the current logs are not as reliable or explanative as they should be. He describes Obama's claim that his is "the most transparent administration in history" as "just bunk."
The ruling "provides a road map for this president and future presidents to avoid disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act," Fitton said.
Obama, he added, "doesn't want people to know who's visiting him [to be required] pursuant to law... . he's not terribly committed to accountability. ... [He] took that ball from Bush and ran with it."
Judicial Watch is currently considering whether or not to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Another option is to request that the case be reheard by all judges on the court of appeals.
One silver lining in the ruling, Fitton said, was that members of some offices that work out of the White House, such as the Office of Management and Budget, are now subject to similar requirements under FOIA as federal agencies. But that victory could be jeopardized by an appeal, he noted.
Jack Abramoff, the once-infamous super-lobbyist who now advocates against government corruption, told U.S. News the ruling "is a significant blow to transparency in government."
"We can only pray that a higher court will rectify this ruling," Abramoff said.
Read the ruling: