The Bush administration is laying out a new secrecy defense in an effort to end a court battle about the White House visits of now-imprisoned lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
The administration agreed last year to produce all responsive records about the visits "without redactions or claims of exemption," according to a court order.
But in a court filing Friday night, administration lawyers said that the Secret Service has identified a category of highly sensitive documents that might contain information sought in a lawsuit about Abramoff's trips to the White House.
'Sensitive Security Records'
The Justice Department, citing a Cold War-era court ruling, declared that the contents of the "Sensitive Security Records" cannot be publicly revealed even though they could show whether Abramoff made more visits to the White House than those already acknowledged.
"The simple act of doing so ... would reveal sensitive information about the methods used by the Secret Service to carry out its protective function," the Justice Department argued.
"This is an extraordinary development and it raises the specter that there were additional contacts with President Bush or other high White House officials that have yet to be disclosed," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that filed the suit. "We've alleged that the government has committed misconduct in this litigation and frankly this is more fuel for that fire."
A response by White House spokesman Trey Bohn referred to the Secret Service, saying, "We have nothing to add to the USSS. position as stated in the court filing."
'Circumstances of the visits'
Sensitive Security Records are created in the course of conducting more extensive background checks on certain visitors to the White House. In sworn statements accompanying the filing, two Secret Service officers said the extra attention is paid to some visitors because of their background, "the circumstances of the visits" or both.
The Sensitive Security Records were discovered in the course of another lawsuit seeking similar records, the court papers state.
Another private group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also has requested Secret Service records of Abramoff's White House visits. On Friday, the Justice Department asked for a consolidation of the two cases. Such a move would take the CREW case from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth and give it to Judge Rosemary M. Collyer, an appointee of the current president who is hearing the Judicial Watch case. Lamberth, a federal judge for two decades, has taken both Republican and Democratic administrations to task during his tenure.
To date, the government has turned over Secret Service records referring to seven White House visits by Abramoff -- six of them in the early months of the Bush administration in 2001 and the seventh in early 2004 just before Abramoff came under criminal investigation.
The White House has released little information about the visits, but none of them appears to involve a small group meeting with President Bush.
Nearly two years ago, just after Abramoff had pleaded guilty in the influence peddling scandal, Bush told reporters, "I can't say I didn't ever meet" Abramoff, "but I meet a lot of people."
'I don't know him'
"I don't know him," Bush said at the presidential news conference in January 2006. "I've never sat down with him and had a discussion with the guy."
After Bush's comments, Abramoff wrote an e-mail to the national editor of Washingtonian magazine saying that Bush had seen him "in almost a dozen settings, and joked with me about a bunch of things, including details of my kids. Perhaps he has forgotten everything, who knows."
Time magazine reported that its reporters had been shown five photographs of Bush and Abramoff. Most of them, the magazine said, had "the formal look of photos taken at presidential receptions."
In an attempt to bolster its case, the Justice Department is citing a lawsuit on a secret operation of the Cold War, the attempted raising of a sunken Soviet submarine. In a 1976 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit allowed the CIA to refuse to confirm or deny its ties to Howard Hughes' submarine retrieval ship, the Glomar Explorer.
"A refusal to either confirm or deny the existence of responsive records is a well-recognized and accepted response in circumstances such as these," the Bush administration's court filing states.
The Justice Department probe of Abramoff and his team of lobbyists has led to convictions of a dozen people, including former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, former White House official David Safavian and former Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles.
Abramoff is serving six years in prison on a criminal case out of Florida. He has not yet been sentenced on charges of mail fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion stemming from the influence-peddling scandal in Washington.