Capitol Police IG to investigate GOP spying claims
The inspector general for the U.S. Capitol Police has agreed to investigate the force’s practices following accusations from Republican lawmakers that USCP is spying on them and their visitors.
In a detailed letter obtained by The Hill, Capitol Police forcefully denied any wrongdoing, laying out a system for reviewing people who attend events with elected officials largely at lawmaker request.
The investigation comes at the request of Chief Thomas Manger, who said he sees it as a way to “assure both this Committee, the Congress as a whole, and the public that these processes are legal, necessary, and appropriate.”
“The USCP does not conduct any ‘insider threats’-related surveillance or intelligence gathering on Members, staff, or visitors to the Capitol Complex,” he said.
But the effort reflects the deep mistrust of USCP leadership held by some GOP members who say that agency has encroached on privacy in attempts to bolster security after Jan. 6.
It’s a relationship that’s only gotten more tense with the news this week that a Capitol Police officer entered the office of a freshman lawmaker after finding the door ajar while on a weekend patrol.
The initial request for insight into Capitol Police practices came from the five Republicans initially selected by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to serve on the Jan. 6 committee.
Reps. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.) were blocked from serving on the panel by Democratic leadership, while Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) and Troy Nehls (R-Texas) refused to serve after their colleagues were blocked. Reps. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) and Bryan Steils (R-Wis.) also joined the letter.
The seven lawmakers were alarmed, they said, by reporting in Politico detailing a move by USCP to review the backgrounds and social media feeds of congressional staffers and those coming to visit lawmakers.
“A decision to expand background checks and intelligence gathering to a previously unsurveilled group of individuals constitutes a dramatic and troubling expansion of the USCP’s authority,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter to Congress’s security agencies in January, the day after the article was published.
The Politico story lays out a system where USCP intelligence analysts are instructed to review the backgrounds of those meeting privately and publicly with lawmakers, including reviewing the social media accounts of those participating and even the building ownership where events are held.
The USCP response strongly pushes back on how the story outlined its policies, saying it contains “inaccurate facts, misleading information, and unsupported conclusions.” It also notes that none of the practices “are in any way related to an ‘insider threats’ program” to evaluate lawmakers or their staff.
Politico stood by the story in an email to The Hill.
“We’re aware of the letter from Chief Thomas Manger. The facts outlined in the story were presented to Capitol Police three days before we published. We stand by our reporting on this important issue,” a Politico spokesperson said by email.
USCP said any event security is initiated either by the lawmaker’s office or the chamber sergeant-at-arms, with the force using only “open source” materials that are publicly available.
“I want to be absolutely clear that at no time has the USCP researched Members or intentionally researched staff as part of this process. Further, the USCP does not conduct criminal background checks on attendees, Members, or staff as part of this process. Finally, even the limited information that the Department gathers for security purposes is not compiled into some sort of ‘dossier’ on an individual or stored by the USCP in any searchable database,” Manger wrote in the letter.
USCP reiterated similar points when reached for request for comment by The Hill, noting they have “prepared security assessments” for lawmakers since 2006.
But the response has done little to assuage lawmakers.
Armstrong accused Manger of “playing word games” and expressed frustration over the screening process to enter the Capitol, saying his visitors have been asked to show ID and sign a guest book, leaving him concerned over what might be done with that information as well as any searches conducted ahead of an event.
“Aggregating data on donors, or people who own buildings you’re doing fundraisers in, or participants in town halls is a really chilling enforcement standpoint, and then I always have to ask this question: if it was righteous why were they doing it in the secret and if it was for security, why weren’t they coordinating with member’s offices?” he said.
Though events are reviewed based on lawmaker or sergeant-at-arms request, per USCP, several offices told Politico they were unaware of the level of scrutiny involved.
And Armstrong stressed that those interacting with lawmakers shouldn’t be reviewed just by virtue of their interaction with lawmakers.
“The whole ‘I’m googling it,’ that’s a little bit of a false flag. Aggregating data on people without any reason to do so is spying on people. The vast majority of what exists in a background check is publicly available information. … Creating that data on citizens is just not okay without a reason. Turns out, knowing who everybody is and everywhere they go has a public safety benefit. I don’t think anybody discounts that. It also has significant civil liberties concerns,” he said.
“People who are coming to see me or are coming to see my Democratic colleagues, my Republican colleagues, need to know that when they come visit their member of Congress, they don’t end up in some file that they don’t know how it’s being utilized.”
Manger has asked the inspector general to review their processes, a detail first reported by The Federalist, a conservative publication. A House aide told The Hill USCP Inspector General Michael Bolton confirmed he has taken up the investigation in a meeting with lawmakers, and a Tuesday “Dear Colleague” letter from Davis, the first signatory of the letter, references the investigation.
“As a result of our letter and coverage of these allegations the United States Capitol Police Inspector General has opened a formal investigation into what I believe are very troubling practices. I believe this is a positive development and look forward to getting some answers that we all deserve,” he wrote.
The inspector general is also now reviewing a Capitol Police officer action to enter the office of Nehls, another signer of the January letter to USCP.
Capitol Police said they found Nehl’s office door open over a November weekend, a scenario in which they said officers “are directed to document that and secure the office to ensure nobody can wander in and steal or do anything else nefarious.”
But the incident is the latest to add to the tension between some in the GOP and Capitol Police, with Nehls claiming without evidence on Twitter that he was possibly a target given that he has been “a vocal critic of @SpeakerPelosi, [and] the @January6thCmte.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Manger pushed back on what he sees as the politicization of the USCP force.
“I feel like the men and women of the U.S. Capitol Police are being dragged into partisan differences, and that’s unfair to them and it’s unfair to this department,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was asked this week about the accusation from Nehls that she is weaponizing the USCP, cutting off the reporter.
“Don’t waste your time. I have no power over the Capitol Police. Does anybody not know that? The Capitol Police have responded to that gentleman’s allegation, and that stands as what it is. But I have no power over the police,” she said.
But the effort to pin blame on Democrats for security issues has become a popular refrain among the GOP, from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) accusing Pelosi of having “gazpacho police spying on members of Congress” to those seeking to take aim at any role the Speaker may have had in security preparations in general and in the lead up to Jan. 6.
“I’ve seen it and will continue to talk about how politicized the security apparatus is here. The Speaker and her team and the majority have way too much power over security decisions. And that’s something that I think needs to change,” Davis told The Hill.
“Even though some reporters and some in the media want to list this as fact, that somehow Speaker Pelosi and her team have no control of the security apparatus — that’s laughable.”
Bolton, the USCP inspector general, is set to appear before lawmakers next week in the House Administration Committee, where Davis serves as ranking member.
Armstrong said he’s hopeful they’ll be able to stress the need for more oversight of the force.
“There’s a reason you need civilian oversight for this because the law enforcement officers charged with protecting everybody here – if they could put a drawbridge and a moat around the place they would do it because that’s how you harden the facility,” he said.
“It’s our job as members of Congress to analyze all of the factors and not just safety and security factors in how we want this place to run.”
Mike Lillis contributed.
This story was updated at 4:55 p.m.