WASHINGTON (CN) – A government accountability group and investigative journalist sued the Justice Department on Tuesday to get to the bottom of whether surveillance of President Donald Trump and his campaign staff had been authorized in the waning months of the Obama administration.
The James Madison Project and USA Today’s Brad Heath filed a March 6 Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI, just two days after the president fired off four tweets accusing his predecessor of tapping the phones at Trump Tower, which he compared to the Nixon/Watergate era.
The FOIA request seeks information about whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISC, authorized surveillance of Trump, his campaign or his transition team.
According to the complaint filed Tuesday in Washington, D.C., federal court, the FBI granted expedited processing to the request on March 20 but has since failed to respond substantively.
As noted in the lawsuit, on March 21 FBI Director James Comey confirmed the existence of an active investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which he said included looking at possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
Comey also said that the FBI had uncovered no evidence to support Trump’s wiretapping claims.
Several days later, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said he had seen copies of intelligence reports showing that communications of Trump transition officials had been incidentally collected during foreign surveillance conducted by intelligence agencies. He said the reports appeared to “unmask” the identity of Trump associates.
As the complaint notes, recent reporting revealed that two administration officials provided Nunes with the information, which he viewed at the White House, and which White House press secretary Sean Spicer verified.
Trump had said that Nunes validated his wiretapping claims and has refused to retract them, suggesting instead – along with Spicer – that he meant general surveillance, not literal wiretapping.
According to the complaint, their public comments point to the existence of a surveillance order.
“The comments of President Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer constitute prior official disclosure of the existence of surveillance orders issued by the FISC and that authorized collection of information that, at a minimum, incidentally implicated President Trump and/or his associates,” the seven-page lawsuit claims.
According to Bradley Moss, a national security attorney who filed the complaint with Mark Zaid in Washington, the lawsuit seeks to settle several things.
“First, and most importantly, was there a FISA warrant (or warrants) that targeted President Trump and/or any of his associates,” Moss said in an email. “And if so what were the parameters of the scope of information authorized for collection.” (Parentheses in original.)
To that end, the James Madison Project and Heath asked for copies of orders from the FISC that authorized surveillance of Trump and his associates, along with any applications seeking such authorization. They also sought a copy of any related minimization orders.
To head off DOJ efforts to withhold classified information under FOIA Exemption 1, the requesters asserted pre-emptively that Trump’s tweets constitute official disclosure of at least one FISA warrant, the lawsuit says.
Moss said in his email that his clients want “the courts to adjudicate whether tweets issued by the President can constitute sufficient evidence of a prior official disclosure for the purpose of rebutting government classification arguments.”
The lawsuit was filed the same day that conservative media outlets reported that Susan Rice, former President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, requested to unmask Trump transition officials for political purposes. Unmasking a redacted name in an intelligence report reveals the name to the requester only.
During an interview on MSNBC Tuesday morning, Rice called claims that the Obama administration unmasked Trump campaign associates for political purposes “absolutely false.”
The James Madison Project and Heath are asking the court to order the Justice Department to disclose the requested records.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the pending litigation.