Top Democrats in Congress on Friday called for a full investigation into the Justice Department’s extraordinary decision to secretly seize data from the accounts of at least two House MPs and their aides when the Trump administration tried to uncover the source of classified information leaks.
Democrats and free speech advocates condemned the seizures and aggressive investigative tactics, first reported Thursday by the New York Times, as gross abuse of power to attack another branch of government, and said the search for information on some of Donald J. Trump’s former presidents most visible political opponents smelled of dangerous politicization.
They called in various ways to the Justice Department Inspector General and Congress itself to open an investigation – and the dismissal of Department employees who were involved in the investigation.
“I hope any prosecutor involved will be kicked out of the department,” California representative Eric Swalwell, one of at least two Democrats on the Intelligence Committee whose files were confiscated, said in an interview. “It crosses the line of what we do in this country.”
“We need to find out what and how it happened to see how much D.O.J. abused his powers under Trump for political purposes, ”he continued. “I think it was absolutely a frontal attack on the independence of an equal government.”
The Times reported that in finding the source of leaks about Trump employees and Russia, the Justice Department had used grand jury summons to force Apple and another service provider to hand over data tied to at least a dozen people, who were associated with the committee in 2017 and 2018. The department then secured a gag order to keep it a secret.
In addition to Mr. Swalwell, investigators were given access to the files of Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee and now its chairman, committee staff, and family members, including a minor.
Although leak investigations are routine, current and former Justice Department and Congress officials said the seizure of data on lawmakers is almost unknown outside of corruption investigations.
In the Senate, Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon and a member of the Intelligence Committee who was a leading critic of state surveillance, said he plans to introduce laws to try to crack down on the use of gag orders such as those used by Apple and news organizations involved in the Leak investigation were also scrutinized.
“Revelations about the Trump Department of Justice’s attacks on journalists and political rivals prove once again how surveillance powers can be abused and the need to severely restrict gag orders that prevent the targets of this espionage from knowing about it for years,” Wyden said in a statement.
While senior Democrats in the House of Representatives, including Mr. Schiff and Spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi, focused on the need for a general investigation by the inspector, Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said Congress should conduct its own investigation.
“I respectfully ask the House not to request an investigation from the executive branch, but to conduct it itself,” he said wrote on Twitter, noted that the Senate could try but had fewer tools to force responses.