WASHINGTON – The Justice Department’s independent oversight body announced Friday that it is launching a broad investigation into whether the Trump administration and its two attorneys general improperly seized the phone records of Democratic House lawmakers, their staff and journalists as part of an aggressive 2018 leak investigation.
Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz has confirmed that he will launch an investigation into the case, as well as the use of calls to obtain telephone records from journalists. Horowitz also said his oversight agency would look beyond orders to call “other legal authorities [used] obtain communications records … in connection with recent investigations into alleged unauthorized disclosures to the media by government officials. “
“The review will examine the Department’s compliance with applicable DOJ policies and procedures,” Horowitz said, “and whether any such uses or investigations were based on inappropriate considerations. If the circumstances justify it, the MIG will consider other issues that may arise during the review. ”
The Office of the Inspector General may initiate investigations based on information obtained from a variety of sources, including its own telephone, agency or Congressional recommendations. In this case, the request was filed by Deputy State Attorney Lisa Monaco.
The announcement came after Democratic representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell confirmed that DOJ officials from the Trump era had secretly seized information about their Apple phones, as well as information about 10 other members of the Intelligence Committee and their relatives.
The call that Apple received in early 2018 seems to have given a wide network by asking for information on more than 100 phone numbers and email addresses, the company states. It also included an order that prevented Apple from telling lawmakers for three years that their data had been seized.
Democratic Senate leaders on Friday demanded that two attorneys general of then-President Donald Trump, William Barr and Jeff Sessions, testify about the seizure of phone records.
New York Times, who was the first to report on the seizure on Thursday night, he said the Justice Department had subpoenaed Apple to telephone data of Democrats and their aides and family members, one of whom is a minor, to find out sources of media reports on contacts between Trump aides and Russia.
A Justice Ministry spokesman declined to comment. Barr also declined to comment.
In the interview with politics, Barr said he does not remember being informed on the matter. But Barr, according to the Times, revived leak investigations even after they found no evidence against lawmakers.
Data on dozens of numbers and e-mails were requested
In a statement on Friday, Apple said that on February 6, 2018, it received a call from the federal grand jury asking for “customer or subscriber account information” related to 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the court summons asked for the phone and e-mail information of 109 different people, because some numbers and addresses are related to one Apple subscriber, while others are not related to any subscriber, the company states.
The summons did not specify the nature of the investigation, Apple said, adding that the company provided only metadata and account subscriber data, not email or images.
Apple said the gag order has been extended three times. The Biden-administered Justice Department did not attempt to extend the closure order, allowing Apple to notify call subjects on May 5 that their phone metadata and account subscriber information had been seized.
A House intelligence committee official confirmed the existence of court summonses in an interview with the U.S. TODAY on Friday and described them as a politically motivated effort to take revenge on “people who rightly investigated the Trump administration for abuse.”
“The question we have for the Ministry of Justice is what is this legally based on?” When did it start? And how did it proceed? “said a committee official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
“We asked basic questions several times and answered the Department’s questions with ease for more than a month, but we received almost no information other than confirmation that the investigation was closed,” a committee official said. “The Ministry’s refusal to provide information is unacceptable and will have to provide a full account of this and other cases in which law enforcement is armed against Donald Trump’s political opponents.”
On Thursday night, after the Times published its report, Swalwell went to CNN and confirmed that his phone data was among those seized, as were other lawmakers and members of their families.
“I believe (family members) were targeted to be punished, not for any legal reason, (but) because Donald Trump identified President Schiff and board members as his enemy,” Swalwell told CNN, adding that the gag order was motivated by fear of public perception that the Trump administration was targeting imaginary political enemies.
“Tough” targeting of political opponents, Democrats say
House Democrats immediately condemned the data seizure and called for an investigation by the inspector general.
“News of the politicization of the Trump administration by the Justice Department is worrying,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said in a statement. “These actions seem to be another powerful attack on our democracy led by the former president.”
Democrats have also long said that Trump used the Justice Department to go in search of his perceived political enemies, an allegation repeated by Schiff on Thursday night.
“Clearly, his demands are not outrageous. This unfounded investigation, although now closed, is another example of Trump’s corrupt arming of justice,” Schiff, D-Calif., he said.
In an interview with CNN, Schiff said perhaps several other MPs or telephone data staff were targeted as part of the leak investigation. He said people who received notifications from Apple initially thought the email was either spam or an attempted identity theft.
And journalists on target
The Justice Department also received secret telephone records of journalists during the Trump administration New York Times,, Washington Post i CNN. Trump and his former aides have publicly condemned newspaper leaks that have often led to embarrassing news about the White House.
Faced with criticism from journalists and media advocates, the Biden administration announced they will no longer secretly collect journalist records during leak investigations, a departure from the policy previously sought by administrations to identify sources that provided confidential information to journalists.