A pro-business watchdog group sued the National Security Agency on Monday, demanding that the spy agency turn over metadata logs for some phones registered to top EPA officials in a pioneering legal maneuver that seeks to use the government’s own secret data to check up on other agencies.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute has been trying to pry cellphone and text message records from the Environmental Protection Agency for months but was rebuffed. The EPA said it didn’t store the data.
The institute then turned to the NSA, arguing that records of the communications likely were scooped up in the phone-snooping program revealed last year by former contractor Edward Snowden.
“We have found the silver lining of the NSA affair: While spying on all of us, our federal spooks inadvertently caught some of their lawbreaking political operatives at EPA,” said Christopher C. Horner, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit.
The NSA didn’t respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, and it has rebuffed several efforts by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and others to try to see phone records that the agency likely collected and stored.
Mr. Horner said he has no objection to either Administrator Gina McCarthy or top deputy Bob Perciasepe having the secondary addresses, but he cited internal EPA documents showing the addresses have been scrubbed from the agency’s enterprise content management system. If the accounts aren’t on the EPA records system, Mr. Horner said, then official business could be shielded from public view.
“What today’s request will get us closer to is seeing the audience for and the subject matter of the very small [amount] of correspondence that our documents show exist on these atypical accounts, such as for whom and what topics were these nonpublic accounts reserved?” Mr. Horner said.
The Washington Times on Monday emailed EPA secondary accounts that the Competitive Enterprise Institute listed as belonging to Mr. Perciasepe and Ms. McCarthy. Although neither responded, the emails didn’t bounce back as undeliverable.
Asked about the accounts Monday, EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson said agency administrators have been assigned two government-issued email accounts for more than a decade: a primary account published on the agency website that receives more than 1 million messages a year, and a secondary account used to communicate with staff and other government officials.
She said neither account was hidden or removed from the agency’s content management system.
“Given the large volume of emails sent to the primary account, the secondary account is necessary for effective management and communication between the administrator and agency colleagues,” Ms. Johnson said.
She also said both accounts are searched in response to requests for email records.
Neither of the secondary accounts turned up in a search by The Times of the EPA’s public Freedom of Information Act database, which contains records on thousands of open records requests, including some seeking correspondence by Mr. Perciasepe or Ms. McCarthy.