Justice Dept to tighten rules on seizing Congress data

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Justice Department will tighten its rules around obtaining records from members of Congress, Attorney General Merrick Garland said, amid revelations the department under former United States (US) President Donald Trump had secretly seized records from Democrats and members of the media.

“Consistent with our commitment to the rule of law,” Garland said on Monday in a statement, “we must ensure that full weight is accorded to separation-of-powers concerns moving forward.”

Garland’s statement came as a Justice Department official said the top national security official, John Demers, planned to leave by the end of next week. Demers, who was sworn in a few weeks after the subpoena for the Democrats’ records, is one of the few Trump appointees who has remained in the Biden administration.

The Justice Department is struggling to contain the fallout over revelations that it had confiscated phone data from House Democrats and reporters as part of an aggressive investigation into leaks. The disclosure is also forcing Biden administration officials to wade back into a fight with their predecessors – something they’ve wished to avoid.

News outlets reported last week that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed Cupertino, California-based Apple Inc in 2018 for metadata from two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee – California Rep Adam Schiff and California Rep Eric Swalwell – as their committee was investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. Schiff, at the time, was the top Democrat on the panel, which was led by Republicans.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland arrives to speak at the Justice Department in Washington. PHOTO: AP

Now the House Intelligence Committee Chair, Schiff said on Monday that he had spoken with Garland, who had given his commitment to an independent investigation by the inspector general. Schiff said he had “every confidence” that Garland “will also do the kind of top-to-bottom review of the degree to which the department was politicised during the previous administration and take corrective steps.”

The intelligence panel initially said 12 people connected to the committee – including aides, former aides and family members – had been swept up, but more have since been uncovered, according to a person familiar with the matter who also was not authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Some people might not know they were targetted because the Apple notification was by email and showed up in the spam filters of some of those who were contacted, the person said.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep Jerry Nadler announced an investigation into the subpoenas on members of Congress and journalists. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Senator Dick Durbin demanded a copy of the subpoena and other records about the decision to obtain the order.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell lambasted a demand by Democrats that former attorneys general William Barr and Jeff Sessions testify before a committee on the subpoenas, saying his Democratic colleagues had given into the “urge to pick at the scab of politically-motivated investigations.” He defended Barr, saying the move was a “witch hunt in the making.”

“There is no need for a partisan circus here in Congress,” he said.

The subpoena, issued February 6, 2018, requested information on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple said. It also included a nondisclosure order that prohibited the company from notifying any of the people, and it was renewed three times, the company said in a statement.

Apple said that it couldn’t challenge the warrants because it had so little information available and that “it would have been virtually impossible for Apple to understand the intent of the desired information without digging through users’ accounts”.

Although Apple said it contests legal requests that it believes are unfounded, the company challenged or rejected just seven per cent of the US demands it received during the 2018 period when it received the subpoena for the information about Schiff and Swalwell. Apple was even less combative during the first half of last year, challenging just four per cent of the US legal requests.

Apple has been turning over some customer data in 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the legal requests it has received in the US in recent years, though the information often excludes the content of text, email or photos.

Like other major technology companies, Apple has been dealing with a steadily escalating torrent of legal requests for account and device information from around the world as its products and services have become more deeply ingrained in people’s lives.

During the first half of last year, for instance, US law enforcement agencies sought information on 18,609 Apple accounts – nearly seven times the number of accounts requested during the same time in 2015. The demands are becoming more broad, too.

During the first half of 2018, when Apple received the subpoena affecting Schiff and Swalwell, the 2,397 US legal requests that Apple received covered an average of seven accounts, according to the company’s disclosures. That was up from an average of roughly three accounts per request during the first half of 2015.