Is the Executive Branch Targeting Oversight Committees?
PPSA continues to press a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking documents that would shed light on the extent to which the executive branch is spying on Members of Congress. We are asking the government for production of documents on “unmasking” and other forms of government surveillance of 48 current and former House and Senate Members on committees that oversee the intelligence community.
Now the court and Congress have fresh reason to give the issue of executive branch spying on Congress and its oversight committees renewed attention.
Jason Foster, the former chief investigative counsel for Sen. Chuck Grassley – the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee – recently learned that he is among numerous staffers, Democrats as well as Republicans, who had their personal phone and email records searched by the Department of Justice in 2017.
A FOIA request filed by the nonprofit Empower Oversight, founded by Foster, seeks documents concerning the government’s reasons for compelling Google to reveal the names, addresses, local and long-distance telephone records, text message logs and other information about the accounts of congressional attorneys who worked for committees that oversee DOJ. The government’s subpoena also compelled the release of records indicating with whom each user was communicating.
The Empower Oversight FOIA notes:
“This raises serious public interest questions about the basis of such intrusion into the personal communications of attorneys advising congressional committees conducting oversight of the Department. Constitutional separation of powers and privilege issues raised by the Speech or Debate Clause of (U.S. Const. art I. § 6) and attorney-client communications of those targeted with these subpoenas should have triggered requirements for enhanced procedural protections and approvals.”
As The Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial, these subpoenas coincided with leaks of classified information concerning a wiretapped phone call between incoming Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador. This leak was investigated by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many now wonder if DOJ’s dragnet of personal information of congressional staffers was an attempt at misdirection, perhaps a fishing expedition to find someone else to blame.
Empower Oversight’s FOIA states:
“If the only reason the Justice Department targeted the communications of these congressional attorneys was their access to classified information that was later published by the media, it raises the question of whether the Department also subpoenaed the personal phone and email records of every Executive Branch official who had access to the same information.”
The Empower Oversight FOIA concludes about this surveillance of Congressional staff:
“It begs the question whether DOJ was equally zealous in seeking the communications records of its own employees with access to any leaked document.”
Sen. Grassley, who aggressively pursues government surveillance overreach, will likely want to follow up on these questions. In the meantime, PPSA petitions the D.C. Circuit Court for an en banc hearing on the possible unmasking and other surveillance of some of the elected bosses of these congressional attorneys.