Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy is requesting an ethics investigation of Attorney General William Barr’s decision more than 25 years ago, when he served in that capacity under President George H.W. Bush, to approve a mass surveillance program by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
In a letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, Leahy and fellow Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said the “illegal” program collected billions of records from Americans’ phone calls. Citing a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General, the senators said there is no evidence the program was subject to “comprehensive legal analysis” before Barr signed off on it.
As Attorney General for the Bush Administration, Barr gave the DEA authority to subpoena bulk records of phone calls between Americans and individuals in countries of interest to the agency. The OIG report criticized the program as “uniquely expansive” and said it allowed the DEA to collect the records regardless of whether it was “relevant or material” to a specific investigation.
The inspector general’s report said the absence of a “robust” legal review was troubling because the DEA used the data in “an unknown number of occasions” in support of investigations by other federal agencies that were not related to drugs.
Leahy and Wyden said Barr’s authorization of the surveillance program betrayed his oath to protect the Constitution and “likely amounted to professional misconduct.”
“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,” the letter said.
The senators are also asking Barr to explain whether current DEA surveillance programs have adequate protections to prevent unlawful spying on Americans.