(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

PETE YOST
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is refusing to release documents that would identify visitors to the White House, embracing a legal position taken by the former Bush administration, according to a watchdog group that filed a federal lawsuit seeking access to the records.

The group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed its lawsuit after being denied access to Secret Service records, including White House entry and exit logs, that would identify coal and energy industry visitors.

The government’s refusal to release the records contrasts with President Barack Obama’s pledge of transparency and frustrates efforts to measure his promises to keep special interests at arm’s length.

The Department of Homeland Security told CREW that most of the records the group seeks are not agency records subject to disclosure under the federal Freedom of Information Act. Instead, DHS said the records are governed by the Presidential Records Act and not subject to disclosure under the FOIA.

DHS said it had been advised by the Justice Department, which generally defends U.S. government agencies in FOIA cases, that releasing the requested records could reveal information protected by the presidential communications privilege.

The Bush administration fought on the same legal ground for several years in a case that is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

A week and a half before Obama took office, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth brushed aside the Bush administration’s argument that revealing Secret Service logs would impede the president’s ability to perform his constitutional duties. The court said the likelihood of harm is not great enough to justify curtailing the public disclosure goals of the Freedom of Information Act.

The long-running controversy over shielding the identities of visitors to the White House and to the personal residence of the vice president is wrapped up in the influence peddling scandal involving now-imprisoned influence peddler Jack Abramoff.

In the spring of 2006 when various groups were trying to find out the dates of Abramoff’s White House visits, the White House and the Secret Service quietly signed an agreement declaring the Secret Service logs identifying visitors to the White House are not open to the public.

Four months later, Vice President Dick Cheney’s office told the Secret Service in a letter that visitor records for the vice president’s personal residence “are and shall remain subject to the exclusive ownership, custody and control of OVP,” the office of the vice president. The controversy over Cheney involved visits by a number of conservative religious leaders to the vice president’s residence.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.