Senate Democrats seek probes of administration's secret messaging

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 13, 2017 2:26 PM

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. Senate Democrats on Tuesday called for government-wide investigations into the Trump administration's use of secretive messaging phone applications and whether officials are ignoring or delaying responses to some Congressional oversight requests.

Delaware Senator Tom Carper and Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, both influential members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked the inspectors general at 24 executive agencies and departments to investigate whether officials are using apps for work that make it hard to trace communications. The apps encrypt messages and automatically delete them after they are read, which could run afoul of laws on preserving government records, the senators wrote.

While Republicans control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, Democrats in Congress can still request that inspectors general, neutral investigators who check up on various federal offices, look into specific matters.

They also asked the inspectors general if officials in the administration of Republican President Donald Trump are directing employees of government agencies to ignore requests for information from Democrats in Congress. Members of both parties objected after the administration said agencies do not have to honor requests made by senior Democrats on congressional committees.

Democrats and public interest groups are worried that the Trump administration is hiding important information about possible wrongdoing and stonewalling potential critics. They are also worried about social media, where Trump has tweeted and then later deleted posts.

The office of the Department of Justice's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, who also chairs the council of federal inspectors general, declined to comment on the letter. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The federal government has strict laws on preserving records, which can be used to uncover and prosecute public corruption and collusion. Inspectors general themselves often rely on archived emails and text messages in investigations.

Since Trump's inauguration in January many Washington insiders have embraced messaging apps that promptly destroy chats, encrypt texts and phone calls, and leave no trace of communication on smartphones. Concerns about information security have grown in the wake of the hack of the Democratic party's emails, criticism of candidate Hillary Clinton's use of a private server and laws that count communications from non-government accounts as federal records.

Journalists and officials now frequently communicate via the encrypted Signal or Confide messenger apps. Confide is so popular that the company hosted a media and technology event during this year's White House Correspondents Dinner weekend.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by David Gregorio)