Justice Dept. Watchdog and Senate Open Inquiries Into Seizure of Democrats’ Data

Democrats denounced the Trump administration’s seizure of lawmakers’ data as an abuse of power and called on Republicans to back the congressional inquiry.

By Nicholas Fandos and Charlie Savage

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department’s independent inspector general opened an investigation on Friday into the decision by federal prosecutors to secretly seize the data of House Democrats and reporters as investigators hunted down who was leaking classified information early in the Trump administration.

At the same time, top Senate Democrats demanded that the former attorneys general Jeff Sessions and William P. Barr testify publicly before Congress about the leak investigations, including about subpoenas issued to tech companies in 2017 and 2018 for the records of at least a dozen people tied to the House Intelligence Committee. The senators vowed to “vigorously investigate” and called on Republicans to join them.

Apple, which complied with a subpoena for information related to more than 100 email addresses and phone numbers in February 2018, said on Friday that it did not realize that the records belonged to Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, and his associates. Microsoft said it was also subpoenaed by a grand jury as early as November 2017 for data related to an email account for an aide to the panel.

Democrats and privacy advocates denounced the exceedingly unusual seizures related to Congress, reported on Thursday by The New York Times, as an abuse of power. Some called on lawmakers to pursue legal changes to crack down on the kind of gag orders used for years to keep companies from disclosing the subpoenas. Others urged the Justice Department to punish investigators who sought the records.

“I hope every prosecutor who was involved in this is thrown out of the department,” said Representative Eric Swalwell of California, a Democrat on the intelligence panel whose records were also seized. “It crosses the line of what we do in this country.”

The episode added fuel to accusations of politicization in the Trump-era Justice Department, where federal prosecutors seemingly gave lenient treatment to some of the former president’s allies and targeted reporters and Democrats he reviled as the administration sought to stop leaks about Trump associates and Russia.

The Biden Justice Department had disclosed in recent weeks that the same investigators secretly seized phone records of journalists at The Washington Post, CNN and The New York Times. Related fights over email data spilled over into the early Biden era, including the imposition of gag orders on CNN and Times executives and lawyers that were only recently lifted.

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