After a series of damaging leaks about contacts with Russian officials in the early moments of the Trump era, the Department of Justice took the extraordinary step of subpoenaing data from Apple on top Democrats, their families, and their staff, in an effort to identify the source of the leaked information. The New York Times reports that at least a dozen people associated with the House Intelligence Committee had their records seized, including then–ranking member of the committee Adam Schiff and committee member Eric Swalwell. The surveillance reportedly encompassed the subjects’ metadata, whom they were communicating with, not the content of those communications. One of the individuals whose records was subpoenaed was a minor, presumably a family member of one of the targets, because the DOJ suspected officials might be using their children’s computer to leak to avoid detection. The surveillance was not made known to the targets until last month due to a gag order on Apple that recently expired.
Other administrations, including the Obama administration, have aggressively hunted leakers, but the latest revelations show how far and beyond the Trump administration was willing to go, essentially from the start of the Trump presidency. The records seized were reportedly from 2017 and early 2018, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions bore the brunt of Trump’s rage about all things Russia. Leaked contacts between Michael Flynn and then–Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak led to Flynn’s ouster and ultimately federal charges. The leaked information was explosive: It showed the continuation of curious contact between Trump World and Russia; it also revealed that the FBI had used a court-authorized secret wiretap on Kislyak that ensnared the future national security adviser.
“Ultimately, the data and other evidence did not tie the committee to the leaks, and investigators debated whether they had hit a dead end and some even discussed closing the inquiry,” the Times notes. “But William P. Barr revived languishing leak investigations after he became attorney general a year later. … Barr directed prosecutors to continue investigating, contending that the Justice Department’s National Security Division had allowed the cases to languish, according to three people briefed on the cases.” The moves smacked of political targeting to some in the Justice Department.
The secret targeting of sitting members of Congress from the opposite party, particularly those leading an investigation related to the White House, is an extraordinary step that requires truly extraordinary evidence. The fact that so far reports indicate no evidence was found linking the targets to the actual leaks indicates the administration had an ulterior motive: snooping on its political enemies. These disturbing revelations come on the heels of news that the Trump DOJ carried out similar, secret surveillance of journalists covering the White House for a host of major news organizations, raising serious questions about the appropriateness of the Trump administration’s use of its surveillance powers in what appears to be a broad and dangerous overreach.