Two high-profile Democratic senators–Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Ron Wyden of Oregon–are asking the Department of Justice’s ethics body to look into a legally questionable mass surveillance program approved by Attorney General William Barr during his first stint as AG in the 1990s.
The surveillance program, which was conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration starting in 1992, vacuumed up billions of phone records of U.S. citizens and was backed up by no warrants and only subpoenas that were never reviewed by a judge. That’s according to an Inspector General report on the matter released last spring. The program was discontinued only with the revelations of mass surveillance programs at the National Security Council from Edward Snowden in June of 2013.
“Mr. Barr’s authorization of this sweeping surveillance program without requiring, at minimum, an appropriate legal analysis, was not consistent with his oath to support and defend the Constitution and it likely amounted to professional misconduct,” Wyden and Leahy wrote. “Attorney General Barr knew, or should have known, that neither statutory law nor federal case law permitted the DEA to sweep up, in bulk, billions of records of Americans’ telephone communications.”
Leahy and Wyden now want the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility to commit to an investigation.
Asked why the senators are making their formal request for an investigation six months after the release of the Inspector General report, a Wyden spokesperson said the two senators’ offices needed time to review the legal aspects of the surveillance program and to coordinate efforts.
Such retrospective examinations of Barr’s record may be of greater interest now that the AG has revealed himself to be something less than a non-partisan player. Barr, of course, is a central character in the current impeachment investigations of the actions of President Trump and his proxies in Ukraine.
Leahy and Wyden also are asking AG Barr to explain whether current DEA surveillance programs adequately protect against unlawful spying on Americans, and about any changes the agency may have made in response to the IG report.