Judicial Watch is an American conservative non-partisan educational foundation, that promotes transparency, accountability and integrity in government, politics and the law. It is considered a watchdog organization. The organization states that it „advocates high standards of ethics and morality in our nation’s public life and seeks to ensure that political and judicial officials do not abuse the powers entrusted to them by the American people.“ Judicial Watch’s avowed mission is to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other tools to investigate misconduct by government officials and litigation to hold to account politicians and public officials who engage in corrupt activities.
Judicial Watch was established in 1994 to promote „transparency, honesty, accountability, and integrity in government, politics, and the law.“
Founded by conservative attorney Larry Klayman, Judicial Watch came to public attention after filing 18 lawsuits against the administration of Democratic U.S. President Bill Clinton and other figures in the Clinton administration. An early lawsuit was filed by Judicial Watch on behalf of the Western Center for Journalism (WCJ) in 1998. The lawsuit alleged a retaliatory audit by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The WCJ was investigating the death of Clinton deputy White House counsel Vince Foster at the time.
The organization received considerable financial support from prominent Clinton critics, including $7.74 million from conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife. This led Clinton administration officials to accuse Judicial Watch of „abusing the judicial system for partisan ends.“ According to Judicial Watch, Clinton and top Congressional Democrats encouraged the IRS to audit them.
In July 2003 Judicial Watch joined the environmental organization Sierra Club in suing the George W. Bush administration for access to minutes of Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force. After several years of legal wrangling, in May 2005 an appeals court permitted the Energy Task Force’s records to remain secret. Judicial Watch called the decision „a defeat for open government“ and Chris Farrell of Judicial Watch said the ruling fit the trend of increasing secrecy in the Bush administration. Judicial Watch was involved in a similar legal dispute with Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002 when the group filed a shareholder lawsuit against Halliburton. The lawsuit, which accused Halliburton of accounting fraud, alleged that „when Mr. Cheney was chief executive of Halliburton, he and other directors inflated revenue reports, boosting Halliburton’s share price.“ As reported by the Wall Street Journal the court filing claims the oil-field-services concern overstated revenue by a total of $445 million from 1999 through the end of 2001.
In 2006, Judicial Watch sued the Secret Service to force the release of logs detailing convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s visits to the White House. This resulted in the release of a number of documents.
Since President Obama took office on January 20, 2009, his administration has been a major focus of Judicial Watch investigations and lawsuits. Noteworthy and protracted legal battles over the IRS targeting scandal, the Benghazi attack, and the Fast & Furious scandal are of special significance. Since the beginning of the Obama administration, Judicial Watch has filed over 900 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and over 90 lawsuits, including a successful fight over the Obama White House visitor logs and ongoing legal battles over the Fast and Furious scandal. The first legal battle between Judicial Watch and the Obama administration was over access to the White House visitor logs. This resulted in a lawsuit which ultimately forced the Obama administration to begin making public the official logs of visitors to the White House.
The scandal involved a scheme by Clinton administration officials to sell seats on taxpayer-funded trade missions in exchange for campaign contributions to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign. In 1995, Judicial Watch, Inc. filed an action in the District Court under the Freedom of Information Act („FOIA“), seeking information from the Department of Commerce (DOC) regarding DOC’s selection of participants for foreign trade missions. In May 1995, following a search in response to Judicial Watch’s FOIA requests, DOC produced approximately 28,000 pages of nonexempt information and withheld about 1,000 documents as exempt. Disputes arose between the parties over the adequacy of DOC’s search, and Judicial Watch charged that some DOC officials had destroyed or removed responsive documents. In December 1998, following discovery, the District Court granted partial summary judgment to Judicial Watch and ordered DOC to perform a new search. During the investigation, Nolanda B. Hill, a business partner of Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was forced to testify. According to Hill, Brown told her that first lady Hillary Clinton was the driving force behind the efforts to raise as much money as possible for President Clinton’s reelection and the DNC. And further that, „…companies were being solicited to donate large sums of money in exchange for their selection to participate on trade missions of the Commerce Department.“
Secretary Brown died in a plane crash in Croatia on April 2, 1996. He was on a Clinton administration trade mission at the time. Following the Secretary’s death a concurrent independent counsel investigation ended. But some including Kweisi Mfume – head of the NAACP at the time and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, had written federal officials to ask for more data on the suspicious circumstances of Brown’s death. In February 1998 Judicial Watch also called for an investigation.
In 2006, Judicial Watch was awarded nearly $900,000 in attorney’s fees and costs from the lawsuit related to the Clinton fundraising scandals. The judge noted in his ruling that Judicial Watch’s efforts prompted two congressional committees and the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to investigate, and that the Commerce Department thereafter its policy for selecting trade mission participants.
August 10, 2009 Judicial Watch sent a FOIA request to the US Secret Service asking for the following: „All official visitor logs and/or other records concerning visits made to the White House from January 20, 2009 to present.“ Judicial Watch was invited to the White House by Norm Eisen, the then special counsel to President Obama. During the meeting, the Obama White House officials asked Judicial Watch to scale back its information request and „expressed the hope that Judicial Watch would publicly praise the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency.“ However, the White House stated that White House visitor logs are not subject to FOIA. In a November 30 follow up letter, Eisen refused to release the visitor logs sought by Judicial Watch and reiterated the Obama administration’s legal position and, citing national security concerns, requested that Judicial Watch „focus and narrow (its) request.“ Judicial Watch declined to praise the administration and instead filed a FOIA lawsuit on December 7, 2009. In August 2011, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, an Obama appointee, ordered the agency to process the group’s data request.
A similar Judicial Watch lawsuit forced the George W. Bush White House to release visitor logs in 2006.
Osama bin Laden, leader of the terror group al-Qaeda, was killed in Pakistan on May 1, 2011 in a joint operation by the United States Navy SEALs and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This operation was code-named Operation Neptune Spear. On May 2, 2011 Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request with the Department of Defense (DOD) and the CIA for „all photographs and/or video recordings of Osama (Usama) bin Laden taken during and/or after the U.S. military operation in Pakistan on or about May 1, 2011.“
The Federal Government failed to produce any records within the required 20-day time period. In order to force compliance, Judicial Watch filed a FOIA lawsuit against the DOD and CIA on June 8, 2011. On January 31, 2014, after legal wrangling, the Pentagon was forced to release Operation Neptune Spear documents to Judicial Watch. One obtained email had the subject line and is proof that days after the original FOIA request U.S. Special Operations Commander, Admiral William McRaven ordered his subordinates to „destroy“ any Osama bin Laden photos they may have had „immediately.“
The McRaven email, addressed to „Gentlemen,“ instructs:
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement. „The Obama administration has tried to cover this scandal up – and our lawsuit exposed it. We demand further investigation of the effort to destroy documents about the bin Laden raid.“ The Associated Press (AP) filed its own query in search of „copies of all e-mails sent from and to the US government account or accounts“ of McRaven referencing the Al-Qaeda leader. AP received a response the following day. However, AP never received a copy of the email obtained by Judicial Watch.“
The Supreme Court of the United States subsequently denied Judicial Watch’s petition for a writ of seeking a review of the issue.
Judicial Watch filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests in fall 2012 with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) after press outlets reported that the JFK Library was in possession of more than 60 boxes of records from Robert F. Kennedy’s tenure as the U.S. Attorney General. Judicial Watch subsequently filed a FOIA request with NARA on December 5, 2012, on behalf of author/historian Max Holland seeking access to „Documents from the Robert F. Kennedy Papers Attorney General’s Confidential File which have been identified by the JFK Assassination Records Review Board as assassination records.“ The government failed to produce the requested documents and on February 12, 2013, Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the NARA, which „stipulates that the National Archives has not heeded public disclosure laws regarding nearly a dozen boxes of Kennedy’s Justice Department files. Those files have been kept in a secure vault at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester for decades. But under an unusual agreement reached between the Kennedy family and the National Archives after RFK’s assassination in 1968, his heirs maintain some authority in deciding when the files can be opened.
September 11, 2012: a group of heavily armed Islamist militia members attacked the United States’ diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the violence, making it the first time since 1979 that a U.S. ambassador was killed in the line of duty. In the aftermath, President Obama and senior administration officials identified an inflammatory YouTube video as the cause of the attack. Susan Rice, United States Ambassador to the United Nations at the time, went on several television shows and made the following claim:
Susan Rice to Candy Crowley on CNN:
In response, Judicial Watch filed a FOIA request with the United States Department of State for „any and all records or communications concerning, regarding, or related to the talking points or updates on the Benghazi attack given to Ambassador Rice by the White House or any federal agency“ on October 18, 2012. The State Department failed to produce documents which led Judicial Watch to file a FOIA lawsuit on October 26, 2012. In a press release dated April 18, 2014, Judicial Watch announced it had obtained documents related to the talking points memo used by Susan Rice and other Obama administration officials in the days after the attack. These documents show the talking points used by the White House were misleading and were an attempt to blame the attack on a seemingly obscure video rather than administration policy. Specifically, an email from White House Deputy Strategic Communications Adviser Ben Rhodes which was sent on sent on Friday, September 14, 2012, at 8:09PM shows an orchestrated a campaign to mislead. The email „prep“ was for Rice’s Sunday news show appearances to discuss the Benghazi attack. In it Mr. Rhodes :
RE: PREP CALL with Susan, Saturday at 4:00 pm ET.
However, other emails uncovered by the Judicial Watch investigation show that the State Department and administration officials knew otherwise. The truth seemed to be that the 2012 attack on the US compound in Benghazi was a coordinated terrorist attack unrelated to any internet video. According to , when asked about the whether the attack was linked to the Mohammad video, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said she, „could not confirm a connect as we simply don’t know-and we won’t know until there is an investigation.“ Further in the email, Deputy Spokesman at U.S. Mission to the United Nations Payton Knopf noted that at a press briefing earlier that day, Nuland explicitly stated that the attack on the consulate had been well planned. The email sent by Knopf to Rice at 5:42 pm said:
Subject: Toria Nuland backgrounder on Libya
Following Hillary Clinton’s admission on March 3, 2015 that she had used a private email account during her time as Secretary of State, Judicial Watch proceeded to file ten Freedom of Information Act lawsuits against the State Department seeking the records that she had turned over to them. Filed from March 4 to March 9, 2015, the lawsuits sought to obtain “any and all emails sent or received by Clinton during her time as Secretary of State”, communications between government employees regarding her use of a non-government email, the number and names of employees at the State Department who used a non-government email account to conduct business, and records pertaining to the policies used to make sure such emails were searched for responsiveness to FOIA requests. Judicial Watch also requested that previously closed cases be re-opened on the grounds that in light of the private account, a reasonable search of those records hadn’t been conducted.
After this initial set of lawsuits the U.S. District Court agreed to re-open two Judicial Watch FOIA lawsuits that had been closed a year prior, a move considered unprecedented by the organization. They would also proceed to file further FOIA lawsuits seeking information on former Secretary Clinton’s use of an iPhone and iPad for official business, the metadata of the emails turned over to the State Department, the nature of Bryan Pagliano’s hiring to manage Clinton’s private server, and whether Secretary Clinton had received mandatory training on handling classified information. Judicial Watch has currently filed twenty FOIA lawsuits involving the former Secretary’s emails.
Judicial Watch has filed 20 lawsuits against the State Department seeking documents related to the Hillary Clinton email scandal.
As a result of the various lawsuits, Clinton to the court on August 8, 2015 stating under penalty of perjury that she submitted all emails that could be classified as federal records to the State Department. Other documents obtained by Judicial Watch tied the former Secretary to the so-called Benghazi “talking points” that sought to link the attack to a spontaneous protest to an internet video, as well as an email sent to her daughter, Chelsea, the night of the attack saying that, “Two of our officers were killed in Benghazi by an Al Qaeda-like group.”
On February 8, 2015 the FBI confirmed it was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. The Bureau was forced to formally acknowledge the investigation due to an ongoing FOIA lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch. The FBI had previously declined to confirm or deny the existence of the Clinton probe.
A federal judge ruled on February 23, 2016 that top aides to Hillary Clinton could be questioned under oath by Judicial Watch about her use of a private email server as secretary of state. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan granted Judicial Watch’s into whether the State Department and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deliberately thwarted the Freedom of Information Act by using a private email server to obscure her communications from public records requests. In his order, Sullivan demanded that Judicial Watch propose a “narrowly tailored” plan to obtain the information and specified a deadline of March 15, 2016 to file it. Among the people Judicial Watch would be seeking to depose are several State Department employees, including under secretary for management Patrick F. Kennedy, director of IPS John F. Hackett, and executive secretary Joseph E. Macmanus, and former State Department aides such as Huma Abedin, Cheryl Mills; and Bryan Pagliano. According to The Hill newspaper, „Judicial Watch’s multiple legal attacks have yielded tangible results…“
Finding evidence of misconduct, a second federal judge has given Judicial Watch a legal victory in a case focused on Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. On March 29, 2016 U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ruled for Judicial Watch in their motion for discovery. Judicial Watch battling the State Department in court over allegations that it failed to respond to a lawful Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 2014, sought testimony from State Department officials. Similarly, during a court hearing on February 23, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan granted Judicial Watch’s motion for discovery into whether the State Department and Clinton deliberately thwarted the Freedom of Information Act for six years.
On May 10, 2013 Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner admitted to inappropriately targeting „Tea Party“ and other conservative groups for extra scrutiny between 2010 and 2012. Shortly thereafter, Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for „Any and all records concerning, regarding or related to the number of applications received from organization seeking tax exempt status under 501(c)(4)“ including Lois Lerner’s communications with other IRS employees regarding the review and approval process of non-profit groups. On October 9, 2013 Judicial Watch filed a FOIA lawsuit against the IRS for failure to comply with four Judicial Watch FOIA requests dating back to May 2013. By 2014 the IRS began turning over batches of documents to Judicial Watch investigators. In April 2014, Judicial Watch released a batch of internal IRS documents related to the targeting of conservative groups by the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service. Documents released in this batch include communications between Lois Lerner and DOJ’s Election Crimes Division on the feasibility of bringing criminal changes against conservative non-profits. The documents were obtained as a result of the original October 2013 lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) after the agency refused to respond to their FOIA requests dating back to May 2013. The next batch of documents reviewed by Judicial Watch show extensive pressure on the IRS by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) to shut down conservative-leaning tax-exempt organizations. The IRS’ emails by Lois Lerner detail her misleading explanations to investigators about the targeting of Tea Party organizations.
The bulk of Judicial Watch’s cases involve transparency in government and government integrity, and the organization has taken positions on a wide range of issues. Judicial Watch supports:
Judicial Watch is conservative and avows a belief in limited government, individual liberty, the free market, traditional values, and a strong national defense. However, Judicial Watch recognizes that corruption is nonpartisan and nonideological.
According to David Corn, Judicial Watch uses litigation as its primary tool.
In September 2003, Judicial Watch founder Larry Klayman left the organization to run for the United States Senate from Florida. In 2006 Klayman sued Judicial Watch and its president Tom Fitton. The lawsuit charged Fitton with misrepresentation of his academic and professional credentials upon hiring, and upon assuming his position engaged in false and misleading fund raising, misuse of donor money, failure to appoint an attorney as Chairman, failure to comply with a promised severance package to Klayman, and other actions which damaged Judicial Watch, the donors and Klayman. The majority of Klayman’s claims have been dismissed, including all claims against Fitton and the other officers of the organization. The only claims by Klayman that remain pending before the Court consist of allegations that Judicial Watch breached a severance agreement with Klayman.
Judicial Watch has asserted several claims against Klayman. On October 14, 2009, the Court found that Klayman breached the severance agreement by failing to pay Judicial Watch, $69,358.48 in un-reimbursed personal expenses. The remainder of Judicial Watch’s claims against Klayman, which include additional claims of breaches of the severance agreement and trademark infringement, remain pending before the Court as of October 5, 2010.
In 2007 former donor Peter F. Paul sued Judicial Watch, accusing it of using his name to raise more than $15 million to support his lawsuit against Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton while doing little to advance his case. All of Paul’s claims have been dismissed.
Between 1997 and 2002 Judicial Watch received $7,069,500 in 19 grants from a handful of foundations. The bulk of this funding came from three foundations – the Sarah Scaife Foundation, The Carthage Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation, Inc., which folded in 2005. As of 2010, the Sarah Scaife Foundation was the group’s largest contributor.