By Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democratic U.S. senator says he has written to Attorney General William Barr outlining his concerns about potential "political interference" by the Trump administration in an investigation of a private espionage firm that targeted environmental groups in the United States.
Last month Reuters reported https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-cyber-mercenaries-exclusive/exclusive-obscure-indian-cyber-firm-spied-on-politicians-investors-worldwide-idUSKBN23G1GQ that U.S. law enforcement was investigating aspects of a seven-year-long hack-for-hire operation carried out by a New Delhi-based firm called BellTroX InfoTech Services on behalf of unknown clients.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6980750-20200702-Letter-from-Whitehouse-to-Barr.html to Barr and in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that the investigation was being carried out by prosecutors in New York and that unnamed sources had alerted his office that the Department of Justice has taken what he said was "an interest in this matter which seems inconsistent with ordinary procedure."
Whitehouse declined to provide details or identify his sources, saying only that they had "first-hand knowledge of the matters under investigation."
Whitehouse said he believed the interest was inconsistent with the independence of the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan and raised the possibility that the case "will fall victim to political pressure from Washington."
The Department of Justice, the White House, and the U.S. attorney's office in New York did not respond to messages seeking comment. BellTroX owner Sumit Gupta did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment either. In previous conversations with Reuters, he denied wrongdoing.
In last month's story, Reuters reported that among the organizations BellTroX targeted were environmental groups that have campaigned against the oil and gas industry - including Greenpeace, the Climate Investigations Center, and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Whitehouse said that given both the influence he says the fossil fuel industry has wielded with Republican President Donald Trump's administration and recent efforts to water down or reverse the prosecutions of Trump allies, he was right to be concerned that the targeting of green groups would not be properly looked into.
"The risk is obvious that the investigation will be slow-walked or curtailed to protect the President's donors and allies in that industry," Whitehouse said in his letter.
Whitehouse said he asked Barr to preserve any communications between his office and the U.S. attorney's office in New York and provide a log of all contact regarding the BellTroX case.
(Reporting by Raphael Satter and Chris Bing in Washington; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)