House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff said Apple notified him last month that their metadata had been subpoenaed in 2018 (AFP, file photo)
WASHINGTON: The justice department's internal watchdog launched an investigation on Friday after revelations that former President Donald Trump's administration secretly seized phone data from at least two House Democrats as part of an aggressive leaks probe. Democrats called the seizures a "shocking" abuse of power.
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 department policy and "whether any such uses, or the investigations, were based upon improper considerations."
House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif, and another Democratic member of the panel, California Rep Eric Swalwell, said Apple notified them last month that their metadata had been subpoenaed and turned over to the Justice Department in 2018, as their committee was investigating the former president's ties to Russia. Schiff was then the top Democrat on the panel, then led by Republicans.
While the justice department routinely investigates leaked information, including classified intelligence, subpoenaing the private information of members of Congress is extraordinarily rare. The disclosures, first reported by the New York Times, raise questions about what the justice department's justification was for spying on another branch of government and whether it was done for political reasons.
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 criticized Democrats and Mueller on Twitter and repeatedly dismissed as "fake news" leaks he found harmful to his agenda. As the investigations swirled around him, he demanded loyalty from a justice department he often regarded as his personal law firm.
Schiff and Swalwell were two of the most visible Democrats on the committee during the Russia probe, making frequent appearances on cable news. Trump watched those channels closely, if not obsessively, and seethed over the coverage.
Schiff said in a statement that the seizures suggest "the weaponization of law enforcement by a corrupt president."
Senate Democratic leaders immediately demanded that former attorneys general Bill Barr and Jeff Sessions, who both oversaw Trump's leak probes, testify about the secret subpoenas. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and Senate judiciary committee chairman Dick Durbin said in a statement that "this appalling politicization of the department of justice by Donald Trump and his sycophants" must be investigated. They said that Barr and Sessions are subject to a subpoena if they refuse.
Prosecutors from Trump's justice department had subpoenaed Apple for the data, according to a committee official and two other people familar with the matter. The records of at least 12 people connected to the intelligence panel were eventually shared by the company, including aides, former aides and family members. One was a minor.
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. The committee official and the two others with knowledge of the data seizures were granted anonymity to discuss them.
The justice department obtained the metadata - often 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 that 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.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said in a statement that the data seizures "appear to be yet another egregious assault on our democracy" waged by the former president.
"The news about the politicization of the Trump administration justice department is harrowing," she said.
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 only focused on Democrats.
It is unclear why Trump's justice department would have targeted a minor as part of the probe. Swalwell, confirming that he was told his records were seized, told CNN on Thursday night that he was aware a minor was involved and believed that person was "targeted punitively and not for any reason in law."
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's 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 weren't able to substantiate a case.
The news follows revelations that the justice department had secretly seized phone records belonging to reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN as part of criminal leak investigations. Following an outcry from press freedom organizations, the justice department announced last week that it would cease the practice of going after journalists' sourcing information.