“Presses Justice Department to Justify Hiding its Collection of Congressional Staff Communications Records from the Public using Google Gag Orders”

Empower Oversight:

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.