WASHINGTON—The Justice Department will bolster its procedures for obtaining records from members of Congress, Attorney General
said Monday, after it emerged that the agency during the Trump administration secretly seized data on the communications of Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.
Mr. Garland said he directed his deputy, Lisa Monaco, “to evaluate and strengthen the department’s existing policies and procedures for obtaining records of the legislative branch.”
The move comes days after Democrats on the committee said they had learned that records from members and staff were seized by the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump in an apparent search for the source of leaks of sensitive information to the news media.
told committee officials last month that the Justice Department had served grand- jury subpoenas on the tech giant in February 2018, when Mr. Trump had complained about leaks related to contacts between Russia and figures in his 2016 election campaign and then-special counsel
investigation into those ties.
Senate Democrats have called for Mr. Trump’s attorneys general, Jeff Sessions and
to testify under oath about the subpoenas, and the Justice Department’s inspector general launched a review at Mr. Garland’s request into whether the requests were improper.
“There are important questions that must be resolved in connection with an effort by the department to obtain records related to members of Congress and congressional staff,” Mr. Garland said. “Consistent with our commitment to the rule of law, we must ensure that full weight is accorded to separation-of-powers concerns moving forward.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman
(D., N.Y.) said Monday his committee would open a formal probe into the Justice Department’s efforts during the Trump administration to obtain records from lawmakers and reporters.
“Congress must make it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for the Department to spy on the Congress or the news media,” he said in a statement. “We cannot rely on the Department alone to make these changes.”
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, gave the Justice Department a June 28 deadline to provide information about the subpoenas, including how and why they were issued and internal communications about them.
Messrs. Sessions and Barr have both said they weren’t aware of any leak case in which subpoenas were sought for information related to lawmakers’ records.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) issued what amounted to a warning to his Republican colleagues not to join Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who have said they would subpoena the two former officials if they don’t testify voluntarily.
“There’s no need for a partisan circus here in the Senate,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor, adding the Justice Department’s inspector general was “fully equipped” to determine whether the department’s procedures were followed.
Separately on Monday, a Justice Department official said the head of the agency’s national-security division, John Demers, would step down next week, an expected departure as the Biden administration awaits Senate confirmation of Matt Olsen, its pick to lead the division. Mr. Demers will be succeded in the interim by Mark Lesko, the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn.
Mr. Demers, a Trump appointee, is close to top Biden Justice Department officials and had agreed to remain in his post in the new administration. While it hasn’t been determined what Mr. Demers knew about the department’s subpoenas, the national-security division he oversaw is involved in all investigations into leaks of classified information.
Besides the subpoenas relating to members of Congress, the department notified reporters at the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times that, under the Trump administration, it sought and obtained their phone records from 2017.
Mr. Garland and other top officials met Monday with executives of those news organizations. Department officials said they reiterated in the meeting that reporters weren’t subjects or targets of recent investigations and that Mr. Garland would work with news outlets as he changes department policy to no longer seek records of reporters’ contacts when investigating leaks.
While Justice Department investigations into who shared classified information aren’t uncommon, it is unusual for the agency to secretly seize records of members of Congress—or from news reporters, a practice for which the Obama administration faced criticism. The Trump Justice Department also sought records from a sitting White House counsel, according to a person familiar with the matter who said Sunday that prosecutors subpoenaed Apple for information about an account belonging to Mr. Trump’s former White House counsel
It hasn’t been determined what FBI agents were investigating when they sought information about Mr. McGahn, who served as a top legal adviser to Mr. Trump and was also a witness in Mr. Mueller’s probe.
Apple didn’t tell Mr. McGahn what it provided to the government, and the Justice Department barred the company from telling him about the subpoena at the time, the person familiar with the matter said.
“Political or other improper considerations must play no role in any investigative or prosecutorial decisions,” Mr. Garland said in his Monday statement. “These principles that have long been held as sacrosanct by the DOJ career workforce will be vigorously guarded on my watch, and any failure to live up to them will be met with strict accountability.”
While Apple informed the targets of the subpoenas last month that their records had been seized by the Justice Department, neither it nor the department has described the specific goal of the investigation.
Former officials said the Justice Department had been investigating whether a House Intelligence Committee staffer leaked classified information, a probe that was closed last year without charges. The officials said it wasn’t clear whether that matter was related to the subpoenas issued to Apple.
The lawmakers’ records could have been collected not because they were targets of a probe but because prosecutors were investigating someone else with whom they had been in contact, legal experts said. When investigators obtain someone’s communications records, they get a list of numbers and addresses that person has contacted or been contacted by. Investigators must then determine who owns each of the accounts on the list. To do that, they sometimes subpoena companies such as Apple or
for data associated with the accounts.
—Siobhan Hughes contributed to this article.
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