How Often Did Abramoff Visit? The White House Won’t Tell

You knew this was coming.

Last week we found out why the Secret Service had turned over visitor records to Judicial Watch showing only two visits by Jack Abramoff when we knew there were more. The White House, not the Secret Service, has the more comprehensive records.

Well, now it appears doubtful that the White House will ever turn those records over. We may never know how many times Abramoff really visited the White House… or who Jeff Gannon/James Guckert, the male prostitute and White House correspondent, met with there. The White House has records that would show all that. But in a departure from the policy of the Clinton White House, the Bush administration seems determined to keep them forever out of public view.The Secret Service keeps two kinds of records of people entering the White House. The first are called Access Control Records (ACRs), a database based on electronic card swipes by White House workers and visitors. ACRs give very little information – only the time swiped in or out. The other records, called WAVES (Workers Appointments and Visitors Entry System) records, are far more detailed, showing additional information provided to the Secret Service when someone visits the White House, such as who that person is meeting with.

At the end of every month, the Secret Service transfers their WAVES records to the White House, a policy that extends back at least to the mid-90’s. In October 2004, the Secret Service began retaining their own copies of the WAVES records at the request of the National Archives.

In the case of Jack Abramoff, we know that the WAVES records will show more visits, because two anonymous administration officials admitted as much to the NY Times.

But the WAVES records should also provide more details of James Guckert’s many visits to the White House, beyond the simple times of entry and exits, as were disclosed in ACRs turned over last year as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request to the Secret Service. The FOIA request was filed by Reps. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and John Conyers (D-MI). They also filed a FOIA request with the White House’s Office of Administration for Guckert’s visits. But they never got a response. I incorrectly reported last week that they had.

“The White House never cooperated with us directly,” Slaughter’s spokesman Eric Burns told me. “The Secret Service was minimally responsive, the White House was nonresponsive.”

The reason why they received no response is that the WAVES records are likely held within an area of the White House not subject to FOIA requests. Slaughter and Conyers directed their request to the White House’s Office of Administration, which is subject to FOIA requests. But Carol Ehrlich, the FOIA officer there, told me that they didn’t have the WAVES records. She directed me to the White House’s press office, which has yet to respond to my question.

The Secret Service has been transferring their WAVES records to the White House at least since 1997 (see footnote #42 on this report from the Senate Committee on Government Affairs). So this is not a policy unique to the Bush administration. However, the Bush administration has been guarding the records more closely than previous administrations. In 1998, as part of its ongoing suit regarding Filegate, Judicial Watch had a subpoena issued against the Secret Service to turn over WAVES records. The Secret Service complied.

Judicial Watch’s subpoena did not carry any additional legal weight than their current lawsuit against the Secret Service for the Abramoff records, according to Judicial Watch lawyer Meredith di Liberto – which is why they expected much more than the ACRs. That’s why they’re hopping mad.

But it’s not clear that the group will ever be able to get the records they want from the White House. Melanie Sloan, whose group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington has also filed a FOIA request with the Secret Service for Abramoff’s and his associates’ visits, is not optimistic: “[The White House] just going to claim executive privilege.”

It’s apparent that the White House is witholding the WAVES records just because they can – and it’s in their political interest. There are no pressing national security concerns involved, since WAVES records after October 2004 are available via a FOIA request from the Secret Service.

But note that the White House position hasn’t really been tested legally yet. Judicial Watch’s quest for Abramoff’s records is ongoing, and the next step has to be the White House.