Top Democrats in Congress on Friday demanded a full investigation into the Justice Department's extraordinary decision to secretly seize data from the accounts of at least two House lawmakers and their aides, while the Trump administration denied the source of tried to detect leaks of classified information.
Democrats and free speech advocates labeled the seizures and aggressive investigative tactics, first reported by The New York Times on Thursday, as a gross abuse of power to attack another branch of the government, saying that pursuing information about some of former President Donald J. Trump's most visible political opponents smacked of dangerous politicization.
They alternately called on the Justice Department inspector general and Congress itself to conduct an investigation — and to fire department personnel involved in the investigation.
"I hope every prosecutor involved in this is expelled from the department," California Representative Eric Swalwell, one of at least two Democrats on the intelligence committee whose records were seized, 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 determine the extent to which D.O.J. misused his powers under Trump for political ends,” he continued. "I think it was absolutely a frontal attack on the independence of an equal branch of government."
The Times reported that while it was hunting for the source of leaks about Trump employees and Russia, the Justice Department had used grand jury subpoenas to force Apple and another service provider to hand over data linked to at least a dozen people involved in the commission. in 2017 and 2018. The department subsequently imposed a gag order to keep it a secret.
In addition to Mr. Swalwell, investigators gained access to the records of Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee and now the chairman, committee staff and family members, including a minor.
While leak investigations are routine, current and former Justice Department and Congress officials said the seizure of data on lawmakers is almost unheard of outside of corruption investigations.
In the Senate, Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and a member of the intelligence committee who is a leading critic of government surveillance, said he planned to introduce legislation to ban the use of gag orders like those on Apple and news organizations, which were also scrutinized in the leak investigation.
"Revelations about the Trump Justice Department's targeting of journalists and political rivals prove once again how oversight powers can be abused and the need to put strict limits on gag orders that prevent the targets of this spying from learning for years," said Mr. Wyden. . in a statement.
While top Democrats in the House, including Mr. Schiff and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, focused on the need for an Inspector General's investigation, Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz said Congress should conduct its own investigation.
"I respectfully ask the House not to ask for investigations from the executive branch, but to do it itself," he said. wrote on Twitter, noting that the Senate could try, but had fewer tools available to force answers.