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By Chris White
A conservative legal group is seeking communications from EPA officials who may have used a cell phone encryption app to prevent government oversight.
Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request Wednesday to obtain communications from agency employees who allegedly used the encryption app “Signal” to undercut President Donald Trump’s agenda.
“This new lawsuit could expose how the anti-Trump ‘deep state’ embedded in EPA is working to undermine the rule of law,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in press statement. He was referring to recent revelations showing EPA officials are using an encrypted application to thwart the Trump administration.
Fitton added: “[I]t is disturbing to see reports that career civil servants and appointed officials may now be attempting to use high-tech blocking devices to circumvent the Federal Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act altogether.”
Judicial Watch said it is seeking the documents based on a Politico article published in February suggesting that employees “are using new technology … to organize letters, talk strategy, or contact media outlets and other groups to express their dissent.”
The FOIA lawsuit was filed in February and asks for all work-related communications to and from the acting EPA administrator, as well as any records approving the use of Signal. The time frame for Judicial Watch’s requests is July, 2014, to the present.
Using private encryption software such as Signal could hurt a federal agency’s ability to fulfill their record-keeping and transparency obligations under FOIA. The problem is much more acute for the EPA, Judicial Watch claimed, because the environmental regulator has a historically bad record on transparency issues.
Various reports have surfaced showing the EPA’s penchant for hiding internal communications. Conservative legal group Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal), for instance, published a report in 2016 showing agents knowingly shifting certain messages about EPA-related business to non-official email accounts. E&E Legal’s findings, which were obtained through a FOIA request, show the exercise was rampant during the Obama administration.
The relationship between Trump and the agency – always strained – became downright poisonous in March after the president proposed slashing the EPA’s $8.1 billion budget. His budget also included the goal of cutting the agency’s staff by more than 3,000 people.