LOS ANGELES (CN) – Online news outlet Buzzfeed sued several intelligence agencies including the CIA and FBI on Thursday, claiming they are withholding records linked to President Donald Trump’s claims that the Barack Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower.
Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold, of Beverly Hills, and Buzzfeed say in their federal complaint that they made records requests to the Justice Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Leopold says he asked for emails, memos, text messages, instant messages and “any and all records” that mention or refer to Trump’s tweets.
“As the Department of Justice itself has acknowledged, there are ‘hundreds’ of official communications related to the president’s tweets, including the claim that President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower,” Buzzfeed’s Matt Mittenthal said Thursday. “Given the magnitude and clear public interest of this and other allegations, we believe that the Trump administration is legally obligated to turn over these records.”
On March 4, Trump tweeted without evidence: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
He followed that with a series of tweets:
“Is it legal for a sitting president to be ‘wire tapping’ a race for president prior to the election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”
“I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” and
“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Trump tweeted.
Trump made the unsubstantiated claims as calls for an independent investigation into his campaign’s suspected ties to Russia mounted. White House press secretary Sean Spicer later walked back the claims somewhat, stating that by wiretapping, President Trump was talking more broadly about other forms of surveillance.
When asked about the claims, recently ousted FBI Director James Comey said in March that there was “no information” to back up the president’s allegations.
Leopold and Buzzfeed’s 11-page complaint says the agencies did not provide the requested records, a violation of the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI said that Leopold’s request was not “reasonably described” and was “overly broad in scope and seeks information in vague and undefined terms,” according to the lawsuit.
Leopold has appealed the FBI’s denial. He says the Justice Department also asked him to narrow his request and that its National Security Division told him it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the records because the request may “reveal information properly classified under” an executive order signed by Obama in 2009.
“Leopold is not required to narrow the scope of the request and declines to do so,” the filing states.
Buzzfeed and Leopold have asked the court to order the agencies to search for the records and hand over all “non-exempt” records. The White House is exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.
In January, Trump attacked Buzzfeed at a press conference at Trump Tower in New York. He called BuzzFeed a “left-wing blog” and a “failing pile of garbage” after it published a 35-page dossier linking the president and Russia.
Buzzfeed also came under fire from some media outlets for deciding to publish details of the report, which included salacious claims and unproven allegations about Trump’s conduct during trips to Russia.
Several media organizations declined to publish the claims after concluding they could not be substantiated. But Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith defended the decision and said it was “absolutely the right thing to do.”
“We are now in a media environment where you have to engage in false statements,” Smith said in January.
Leopold and Buzzfeed are represented by Rachel Steinback.
The Justice Department declined to comment.