WASHINGTON – Empower Oversight has obtained copies of five previously sealed court orders between 2017 and 2021 that prohibited Google from notifying Congressional staff that it had turned over their email and text records to the Justice Department. Copies of these newly public orders are attached to the latest in a series of Freedom of Information Act requests regarding the Justice Department’s previously secret efforts to collect information on the communications of attorneys for congressional committees conducting oversight of the Department.
The Justice Department filed nondisclosure orders five separate times, ensuring that the communications provider could not notify the staff from both sides of the aisle whose communications records were targeted, congressional leadership, or anyone else of the existence the subpoena or the court order.
Given the narrow circumstances that allow this under law, Empower Oversight has requested copies of the applications for these nondisclosure orders to see what factual representations the Justice Department made to the court to justify the need for secrecy. The circumstances raise serious questions of whether the claims made by Justice Department to the court were true and whether those claims actually support the orders.
The orders—which were sought by the Justice Department during both the Trump and Biden administrations—appear to be related to the same investigation that resulted in the prosecution and guilty plea of former Senate Intelligence Committee Security Director James Wolfe in 2018. Yet, the Justice Department requested and received three additional one-year renewals of the nondisclosure order after the Wolfe prosecution. Attorneys for Google provided copies of the nondisclosure orders to Empower Oversight founder, Jason Foster, one of the attorneys for Congress targeted by the 2017 subpoena that the government kept secret for five years.
In the letter, Empower President Tristan Leavitt wrote, “There are serious questions about how DOJ justified its application for orders under § 2705(b) to mandate the nondisclosure of the subpoena for Mr. Foster’s records in 2019, 2020, and 2021. It would have been impossible on the dates of the renewal requests for Mr. Foster to destroy the records initially sought because Google had already produced them to the government years earlier. It raises the question of whether DOJ was forthright to the court when seeking the orders, and whether DOJ, as a matter of law enforcement policy, routinely applies for extensions to conceal such orders regardless of whether it has any legitimate basis to do so—or whether it did so in this instance merely to conceal its broad, unsupported dragnet approach for the personal communications of Congressional Members and staff for as long as possible to the avoid the very controversy now arising, with multiple letters from Capitol Hill oversight authorities and an active Inspector General investigation ongoing.”
For the full FOIA request, click here.
To see the Oct. 24 FOIA seeking documents regarding the subpoenas to the congressional staff, please click here.
To see the Oct. 30 FOIA requesting documents regarding any subpoenas to the Executive and Judicial branches who had access to the leaked information, please click here.