While the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a powerful tool that is used to make government accountable by requiring the release of records, last week, in a display of the Foucauldian paradoxical nature of power, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that FOIA requests do not extend to the president and several key executive officials. While information can be requested of other federal agencies, the key players, the president, and officials housed in the White House, are veiled from the eyes of the public. While the Obama administration has done more than many others by partially releasing records of White House visitors since late 2009, it has done so voluntarily, putting in question the completeness of current records, and allowing future administrations to renounce this policy at will. Such an exception to the law damages transparency and threatens a vital component of a constitutional republic, accountability.
The FOIA in total includes nine exemptions, including that if the information has been kept secret by executive order, could interfere with law enforcement, could risk circumvention of the law, is used by financial regulatory agencies, and several others. However, it was believed that White House visitor logs were not excepted, seeing that the Secret Service, who records all visitors, is a federal agency. Judicial Watch filed a motion to force the Secret Service to release 7 months of visitor records from the beginning of Obama’s first term. Though initially successful, it was blocked in last week's ruling. The reason, argued by Chief Judge Garland, was that a 2006 “Memorandum of Understanding” between the White House and the Secret Service authorized the records to be kept with the White House, which is not a federal agency, and therefore not required to disclose information under the FOIA. This escape on almost a technicality is outrageous. Had the pre-2006 conditions existed, the White House would have had a much harder time arguing to keep this information secret.
Now an isolated bunker, the White House used to be much more accessible in the 19th and early 20th centuries that one could venture on the White House lawn and knock on the door to have the president answer, provided he was not working on other matters. Although higher security was prompted at the time by several attempted and even successful assassinations, this latest series of transparency countermeasures were set into motion by a list of White House scandals in the late Bush years. The most prominent of these was the Jack Abramoff case, in which a lobbyist close to high officials was convicted of mail fraud and bribery of public officials of millions of dollar. Judge Garland cites Judicial Watch’s earlier attempt to gain records of Abramoff’s visits to the White House as being one that pushed the Secret Service and the White House to agree to the Memorandum.
Such information must be made available to the public. This is not an issue of privacy, but one of accountability, something the White House has been loath to admit.