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Sen. Mike Lee, other senators ask DOJ to explain why they wanted personal info on congressional staffers

FBI director asked lawmakers to reauthorize legislation that gives law enforcement the power to collect large amounts of digital communications

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Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is pictured at the Capitol in Salt Lake City.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is pictured at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 14, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

As FBI director Christopher Wray asked congressional leaders to reauthorize legislation that allows for large-scale surveillance of digital communications, including of American citizens, three senators have asked the Department of Justice to respond to allegations they spied on congressional staffers.

Wray appeared before the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday to ask lawmakers to reapprove the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including Section 702, which gives the FBI and other intelligence agencies the power to surveil digital communications without a warrant, which critics say affects Americans’ privacy.

“Just imagine if some foreign terrorist organization overseas shifts its intentions and directs an operative here who’d been contingency planning to carry out an attack in our own backyard — and imagine if we’re not able to disrupt the threat because the FBI’s 702 authorities have been so watered down,” Wray said during the committee hearing, according to PBS.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Lee and others have introduced a Government Service Reform Act. The legislation, co-sponsored by Lee, a Republican, and Sen Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, also in addition to other privacy protections, would reauthorize FISA and Section 702 but only after significant reforms.

Sens. Lee, Cruz and Grassley ask for info about subpoenas

Lee was also among three senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee who sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this month requesting documents related to allegations that the Department of Justice and FBI used subpoenas to spy on congressional staff and their families “with little or no legitimate predicate.”

The letter alleges the surveillance began during the DOJ and FBI’s investigation into former President Donald Trump’s connections to Russia.

In their letter, Lee and fellow Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, referenced a letter sent to Freedom of Information Act officers on Oct. 23 by Empower Oversight.

The senators’ request said that over a dozen employees of the House and the Senate have been notified by Google and Apple that the DOJ requested their personal data from the private companies in 2017 through subpoenas.

It also includes a copy of a DOJ subpoena to Google, labeled “exhibit A,” requesting “all customer or subscriber account information for any and all accounts associated with the following identifiers listed below from: December 1, 2016 to May 1, 2017.” Underneath that text, the DOJ listed the congressional staffer’s phone number.

Specific information requested was, “Names, addresses, local and long distance telephone connection records, text message logs, records of session times and durations, length of service and types of service utilized.”

The senators asked the DOJ to provide documents falling under eleven categories by Nov. 22 including:

  • Names of officials who were involved in the subpoenas.
  • Names of any congressional staff related to the subpoenas.
  • Legal justification for issuing subpoenas accessing personal communication.
  • All companies/organizations subpoenaed for information on congressional staff.

Empower Oversight also asked for the following records:

  • Grand jury subpoena information and communications between members of the press regarding Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Grassley and others.
  • Communications between the Deputy Attorney General’s Office and the FBI with Verizon.

These records are requested to “shed light on possible DOJ wrongdoing as well as law enforcement policy” regarding using subpoenas to collect personal data of congressional staff.

Republican and Democratic staffers were included in subpoenas

Former chief investigative counsel to then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Grassley, Jason Foster received a notification on Oct. 19, 2023, that the Department of Justice subpoenaed Google in 2017 “for records of a Google Voice telephone number that connected to his family’s telephones,” according to the Oct. 24 Freedom of Information Act request.

Accounts listed in the subpoena belonged to both Republicans and Democrats in the House and in the Senate. Other staffers who received notices of subpoenas include Kashyap Patel, who then served as staff for the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Targeting Democratic members of Congress and staff, the DOJ allegedly sent subpoenas to Apple seeking information on “HPSCI aides and their families.” The request included that one account belonged to a child.

Contributing: Suzanne Bates