Watchdog sues DOJ over decision to show FBI texts to reporters

Watchdog sues DOJ over decision to show FBI texts to reporters
© Greg Nash

A government watchdog group is suing the Justice Department for documents related to its decision to show reporters private text messages between two FBI agents who were critical of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff: Surveillance warrant docs show that Nunes memo 'misrepresented and distorted these applications' Chicago detention facility under investigation following allegations of abuse of migrant children Ex-Trump aide: Surveillance warrants are 'complete ignorance' and 'insanity' MORE.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the Justice Department for failing to respond to an expedited request for documents related to the “highly unusual, if not unprecedented” decision to host reporters at its offices to view the text messages.

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On Dec. 12, the Justice Department reportedly invited journalists to its offices to review messages between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page that the department had separately released to members of Congress the same day.

The messages were discovered as part of an ongoing inspector general probe into the FBI and Justice Department’s handling of the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House protests extend into sixth day despite rain Clinton: US is 'losing friends and allies' under Trump Justice Dept releases surveillance applications for former Trump aide MORE email investigation. 

Until recently, both agents were part of the special counsel investigation into Russian interference. 

Republicans have seized on the messages, which showed the officials criticizing Trump during the presidential campaign, as evidence of political bias on special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s team. Strzok was removed from the investigation after the messages were unearthed. 

The text messages were featured at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Dec. 13 where Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinHillicon Valley: Trump's Russia moves demoralize his team | Congress drops effort to block ZTE deal | Rosenstein warns of foreign influence threat | AT&T's latest 5G plans The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia Rosenstein warns of growing cyber threat from Russia, other foreign actors MORE defended the department’s decision to release the private messages to members of Congress when the inspector general investigation was still ongoing.

“The determination was made that it is so we gave notice to their attorneys, we notified the committee and our goal, congressman, is to make sure that it's clear to you and the American people we are not concealing anything that's embarrassing to the FBI,” Rosenstein said at the oversight hearing. 

The Justice Department inspector general has confirmed that his office did not object to the release of the text messages to Congress.

Some Democrats have clamored for an explanation from the department for the “unusual move” of sending the messages to lawmakers and reportedly allowing reporters to view them. 

CREW filed the expedited Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request on Dec. 13. Agencies are supposed to respond to requests for expedition within 10 calendars days of them being filed. 

According to the complaint filed Wednesday, the watchdog is seeking declaratory relief that the Justice Department is in violation of FOIA for failing to respond to the request. It also seeks injunctive relief ordering the Justice Department to grant the expedited request and process and release the records immediately. 

“Given this highly unusual, if not unprecedented, action to secretly leak the contents of documents currently under review by your office, the public has a clear and pressing interest in learning whether the leak was properly authorized and the extent to which the interests of the texts’ authors were appropriately considered and protected,” the complaint said.