By Sadie Gurman and Siobhan Hughes
WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's internal watchdog and
Senate Democrats vowed to investigate the Trump administration's
secret seizure of communication records of people associated with
the House Intelligence Committee.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz said Friday his office would
conduct a probe, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.)
and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D., Ill.)
called for former attorneys general Jeff Sessions and William Barr
to testify before Congress about the revelations.
In May, tech giant Apple Inc. notified individuals associated
with the committee that the Justice Department had issued
grand-jury subpoenas for their information in February 2018,
according to a House committee official. The committee immediately
contacted the Justice Department for clarification and additional
information, the official said, adding that the department informed
the committee last month that the matter had been closed.
At the time of the subpoenas, then-President Donald Trump and
officials in his administration, including Mr. Sessions, were
trying to locate the source of leaks about contacts between Russia
and figures in Mr. Trump's 2016 election campaign.
Mr. Barr, Mr. Trump's second attorney general, inherited about a
half-dozen leak investigations when he took office in 2019. He
directed a federal prosecutor from New Jersey to work on the cases,
which had languished under his predecessor, and then brief top
officials, a person familiar with the matter said.
On Friday, Mr. Barr sought to distance himself from the
developments, saying he hadn't been aware of leak cases in which
there were subpoenas related to lawmakers' communications. "I
didn't recall that case," Mr. Barr told The Wall Street Journal.
"Whatever steps were taken, were taken before I arrived."
Other former officials said the Justice Department had been
investigating whether a House Intelligence Committee staffer leaked
classified information, but that probe was closed last year without
charges. The officials added that it wasn't clear whether that
matter was related to the subpoenas issued to Apple.
The Justice Department occasionally investigates and charges
members of Congress in corruption investigations, but legal experts
on national security issues said there is no precedent for
investigating members for leaking national security information.
Most rules governing the handling of classified information are
established under a president's executive authority, and aren't
laws. Little precedent exists for whether members of Congress -- as
officers of a coequal branch of government -- must comply.
"To my knowledge, no member of Congress has ever been prosecuted
for unauthorized disclosures of classified information," said
Bradley Moss, a national-security lawyer in Washington.
"Any indictment would be fraught with constitutional
implications," Mr. Moss said. "There'd be fights over separation of
powers. There'd be fights over abuse of authority."
Members of Congress also have immunity from prosecution based on
actions taken in their official capacity in Congress, under the
U.S. Constitution. In 1971, then-Sen. Mike Gravel entered the
highly classified Pentagon Papers into the congressional record --
an action that sparked a federal grand jury investigation, but no
charges were brought against the senator.
Reports of the subpoenas follow earlier revelations that the
Justice Department under Mr. Barr subpoenaed the records of
reporters at several news organizations including the Washington
Post, the New York Times and CNN.
The Justice Department said it would no longer seek records of
reporters' contacts when investigating government leaks of
Mr. Horowitz, the department's inspector general, said his
office would also examine those cases. His announcement came after
Attorney General Merrick Garland and his deputy, Lisa Monaco,
requested the watchdog examine the department's handling of leak
Mr. Horowitz said he would examine whether the subpoenas or
investigations were "based on improper considerations."
"The reported conduct of the Department under Attorney General
Barr is shocking, and clearly fits within an appalling trend that
represents the opposite of how authority should be used," said
White House spokesman Andrew Bates.
Sens. Schumer and Durbin said in a statement that other
officials who were involved must also testify before the Senate
Judiciary Committee under oath. "We expect that our Republican
colleagues will join us in getting to the bottom of this serious
matter," they said.
At least one Senate Republican on the committee would need to
join Democrats in voting to issue a subpoena because Democrats
don't have the power to unilaterally issue subpoenas. The chamber
is evenly divided at 50-50. "I am somewhat doubtful that we would
get a Republican, but it's a possibility -- I wouldn't rule it
out," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), a member of the
Senate Judiciary Committee.
"The Justice Department must provide information and answers to
the Judiciary Committee, which will vigorously investigate this
abuse of power," the statement said.
The Judiciary Committee includes Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.), who
earlier this year voted to convict Mr. Trump of inciting an
insurrection on Jan. 6 and voted to create a commission to
investigate that day's attack on the Capitol. The commission was
blocked due to opposition by other Senate Republicans.
Obtaining the contents of communications generally requires a
Apple has made privacy protections for users a cornerstone of
its business. The Justice Department sought to force Apple to
create software that would allow investigators to unlock the iPhone
of the perpetrator in a 2015 San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist
attack. The company refused, and ultimately the two sides avoided a
courtroom showdown when the Federal Bureau of Investigation used an
outside party to gain access to the device.
Even as it refused to unlock phones, Apple regularly complies
with court orders for information in the U.S. and abroad. In the
first six months of 2020, the latest year in which data was
available, Apple complied with thousands of requests for account
and device access, according to figures the company discloses on
Apple said it wasn't provided any context for the Justice
Department investigation when it was first served a subpoena in
2018, only that the government sought customer or subscriber
account information from 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses.
The information was limited to metadata and didn't provide any
content such as emails or pictures, the company said.
Apple would normally have informed the affected customers
immediately, but the Feb. 6, 2018, federal grand jury subpoena,
signed by an assistant U.S. attorney, included a nondisclosure
order prohibiting the company from disclosing the existence of the
subpoena or informing the individuals, Apple said. The yearlong
nondisclosure order was extended three times, it said. When the
order wasn't extended for a fourth time, Apple informed the
customers on May 5, 2021.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee
Chairman Adam Schiff have called for an investigation into the
Justice Department's pursuit of the communications data, first
reported by the New York Times. It reported that the records of at
least a dozen people connected to the panel in 2017 and early 2018,
including those of Mr. Schiff, were seized in the probe.
The House Intelligence Committee has continued to seek
additional information from the Justice Department, the House
committee official said, adding that "DOJ has not been forthcoming
in a timely manner, including on questions such as whether the
investigation was properly predicated and whether it only targeted
Byron Tau, Tim Higgins, Aruna Viswanatha and Ken Thomas
contributed to this article.
Write to Sadie Gurman at firstname.lastname@example.org and Siobhan Hughes
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 11, 2021 21:29 ET (01:29 GMT)
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