Justice Dept. Watchdog Asked to Wade Into Trump Intel DisputeJ. Scott Applewhite/AP
As controversy swirls over the Trump White House's relations with Russia and the recent firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, the Justice Department’s independent inspector general is being asked to investigate recent leaks believed to have come from the intelligence community.
“We have serious concerns about the potential inadequate protection of classified material here,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, in a Feb. 15 letter to Justice IG Michael Horowitz.
With footnotes to news reports on Flynn’s pre-inauguration phone calls with the Russian ambassador on the day President Obama imposed sanctions on Moscow for interference in U.S. elections, the letter noted that contents of monitored phone calls as well as the fact of a Justice Department application for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would be classified information. Their publication can “have grave effects on national security,” the lawmakers added. “We ask that your office begin an immediate investigation of whether classified materials were mishandled here.”
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The letter comes as Senate and House lawmakers of both parties are jockeying for influence in the nature of a coming investigation into Flynn’s firing, and whether the probe should be undertaken by an outside counsel, a special committee, or the Foreign Relations or the Intelligence committee. Supporters of a broader probe want to examine the fact that neither Flynn nor Trump informed Vice President Pence of Flynn’s omission of his discussion of the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia when speaking to the ambassador, and whether that misstep is part of a larger problematic relationship between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence.
President Trump himself has said the focus of inquiries should be on “criminal leaks.”
But Chaffetz’s refusal to focus on the broader questions infuriated his panel’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
“Chairman Chaffetz appears to be taking his marching orders directly from President Trump’s tweet yesterday,” Cummings said in a Thursday statement. “Instead of investigating General Flynn’s lies to the vice president and the American people, as well as his troubling ties with Russia, the chairman chose to target those who brought them to light. Congress should be doing independent oversight of the executive branch and protecting whistleblowers, not running interference while the White House conceals their abuses and misleads the American people for weeks. Chairman Chaffetz said he didn’t want to go on ‘fishing expeditions,’ but that's exactly what he’s doing here.”
The Justice IG is already pursuing another investigation related to the 2016 election, this one involving the department and the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State. Republicans have asked that it focus on why Clinton was not indicted, while Democrats want the IG to examine the FBI director’s decision to alert Congress and the public to shifts in the investigation close to Election Day.
Horowitz’s office on Thursday declined to comment on the Chaffetz-Goodlatte letter.