WASHINGTON - A federal judge ruled Monday that White House visitor logs were public records and ordered the Bush administration to stop withholding them from scrutiny by outside groups.The ruling, by Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court here, was a blow to the administration, which had tried to shield the logs under a claim of executive privilege. The blow could, however, be largely symbolic; the White House seemed likely to appeal the decision, which could hold up the release of any documents until after President Bush leaves office in 13 months.
Judge Lamberth was ruling in a case brought by a left-leaning advocacy group in Washington that had sought to determine how often several conservative religious leaders entered the White House for meetings during the Bush administration. The order could have an impact on other lawsuits seeking visitor logs from the White House, including a suit that seeks a tally of visits by Jack Abramoff, the corrupt Republican lobbyist.
Judge Lamberth held that because the logs were maintained by the Secret Service and not directly by the White House, they could not be shielded from release under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
"Because the Secret Service creates, uses and relies on, and stores visitor records, they are under its control," he said. "Knowledge of these visitors would not disclose presidential communications or shine a light on the president's or vice president's policy deliberations."
Judge Lamberth questioned the legality of a 2006 agreement between the Secret Service and the Bush administration in which the records were supposed to be turned over to the White House and labeled presidential documents, which would bar their release under freedom of information lawsuits.
The judge described the agreement as "self-serving" because it was drafted after the records were created and after the litigation had begun. Until the Bush administration, White House visitor logs had often been released by the Secret Service in response to requests from outside groups and news organizations.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the advocacy group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said her organization was "pleased that the judge saw through the White House's transparent attempts to hide public documents from the American people."
The group had wanted logs for White House visits by several conservative religious commentators, including James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Spokesmen for the White House and the Justice Department withheld comment on Judge Lamberth's ruling and whether it would be appealed.
"As these issues remain in litigation, we will not comment further at this time," said a White House spokesman, Tony Fratto.
Administration officials signaled, however, that the White House was almost certain to appeal. It has repeatedly tangled with Judge Lamberth, who has issued decisions in several cases that challenged the administration's theories of executive power.
© 2007 The New York Times