The Justice Department’s internal watchdog has launched an investigation into efforts by former President Donald Trump’s administration to secretly seize the communications data of Democrats in the United States House of Representatives.
The announcement by Inspector General Michael Horowitz came shortly after Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco made the request on Friday. Horowitz said he would examine whether the data turned over by Apple followed the department policy and “whether any such uses, or the investigations, were based upon improper considerations”.
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Reports had emerged on Thursday that the Trump administration seized phone data from House Democrats in 2018 as part of an aggressive leaks investigation.
Democratic Representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell were notified that the Justice Department under Trump had seized their metadata from Apple three years ago as part of an aggressive crackdown on leaks related to the Russia investigation and other national security matters, according to three people familiar with the seizures who spoke to The Associated Press news agency.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said in a statement on Friday that former Attorney Generals William Barr and Jeff Sessions “must testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee” and are subject to a subpoena if they refuse.
Schiff and Swalwell were serving on the House Intelligence Committee at the time. Schiff is now the chairman.
While the Justice Department routinely conducts investigations of leaked information, including classified intelligence, opening such an investigation into members of Congress is extraordinarily rare. The disclosures reveal one branch of the government using its powers of investigation and prosecution to spy on another.
The records of at least 12 people connected to the intelligence panel were eventually shared by the company.
The Justice Department obtained metadata — probably records of calls, texts and locations — but not other content from the devices, like photos, messages or emails, according to one of the people. Another said Apple complied with the subpoena, providing the information to the Justice Department, and did not immediately notify the members of Congress or the committee about the disclosure.
Apple informed the committee last month that the records had been shared and that the investigation had been closed, but did not give extensive detail. Also seized were the records of aides, former aides and family members, one of them a minor, according to the committee official.
Apple said on Friday that it received a subpoena in February 2018 seeking customer information for 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, not all of which were Apple customers.
Apple said the subpoena, which came with a gag order from a federal judge, “provided no information on the nature of the investigation and it would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users’ accounts.”
Apple said it limited the information it provided to metadata and account subscriber information, and that it did not provide any content such as emails or pictures in response to the Justice Department subpoena.
The secret seizures were first reported by The New York Times.
The Trump administration’s attempt to secretly gain access to the data came as the president was fuming publicly and privately over investigations — in Congress and by then-special counsel Robert Mueller — into his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Trump called the probes a “witch hunt”, regularly criticised Democrats and Mueller on Twitter and repeatedly dismissed as “fake news” the leaks he found harmful to his agenda.
As the investigations swirled around him, Trump repeatedly demanded loyalty from Justice Department officials.
Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the committee, then led by Republicans, during the Russia probe. Both California lawmakers made frequent appearances on cable news. Trump watched those channels closely, if not obsessively, and seethed over the coverage.
The committee official said the panel has continued to seek additional information, but the Justice Department has not been forthcoming on questions such as whether the investigation was properly predicated and whether it focused only on Democrats.
On CNN Friday, Swalwell said he “would not be surprised” if the department had gone after other members as well. He said an internal Justice Department investigation could find that out. The Senate Intelligence Committee was not similarly targeted, according to a fourth person who was aware of the probe and granted anonymity to discuss it.
There is no indication that the Justice Department used the records to prosecute anyone. After some of the information was declassified and made public during the later years of the Trump administration, some of the prosecutors were concerned that even if they could bring a leak case, trying it would be difficult and a conviction would be unlikely, one of the people said.
Federal agents questioned at least one former committee staff member in 2020, the person said, and ultimately, prosecutors were not able to substantiate a case.