Homeland Security watchdog halted plan to recover Secret Service texts, records show

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The Department of Homeland Security’s chief watchdog dropped his investigative team’s efforts to harvest agency phones to try to recover deleted Secret Service texts this year, according to four people with knowledge of the decision and internal records reviewed by The Washington Post.

In early February, after learning that Secret Service text messages had been wiped as part of a migration to new devices, staff in the office of Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari planned to contact all DHS agencies proposing that data scientists help retrieve messages from their phones. , according to two government whistleblowers who provided reports to Congress.

But later that month, Cuffari’s office decided it would not collect or review any agency phones, according to three people briefed on the decision.

The latest revelation comes as Democratic lawmakers accused Cuffari’s office of failing to aggressively investigate the agency’s actions in response to the violent attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, January 6, 2021.

Cuffari wrote a letter to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees this month saying that Secret Service text messages at the time of the attack had been “erased”. But he did not immediately reveal that his office discovered the removal in December and did not alert lawmakers or examine the phones. Nor did he alert Congress that other text messages were missing, including those of the two senior Trump appointees to head the Department of Homeland Security during the administration’s final days.

Late Friday night, Cuffari’s spokesperson released a statement declining to comment on the new discovery.

“To preserve the integrity of our work and in accordance with direction from the United States Attorney General, the DHS OIG does not confirm the existence of or comment on pending reviews or criminal investigations, nor do we discuss of our communications with Congress,” the statement said.

Cuffari, a former adviser to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (right), has served in the post since July 2019 after being nominated by Trump.

DHS spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said the agency is cooperating with investigators and “investigating all avenues to retrieve text messages and other documents for the Jan. 6 investigations.”

January 6 texts missing for Trump Homeland Security’s Wolf and Cuccinelli

After discovering that some of the text messages the watchdog was looking for had been deleted, the Federal Protective Service, a DHS agency that monitors federal buildings, offered their phones to inspector general investigators, saying they lacked the resources to recover lost texts and other records on theirs, according to three people familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive investigation.

A senior forensic analyst from the inspector general’s office took steps to recover the phones from the Federal Protective Service, the people said. But late on Friday night, February 18, one of several deputies who report to Cuffari’s management team wrote an email to investigators ordering them not to pick up the phones and not ask them for any data, according to a copy of an internal report. recording which was shared with The Post.

Staff investigators also drafted a letter in late January and early February to all DHS agencies offering to help recover any text messages or other data that may have been lost. But Cuffari’s management team then amended that draft to say that if agencies could not retrieve phone messages for the period of January 6, they “should provide a detailed list of the data not available and the reason why the information is not available”, have said the three people.

Cuffari also learned in late February that text messages from the two top DHS officials in the Trump administration on the day of the attack were missing, lost during a ‘reset’ of their government phones when they left their jobs in January 2021, according to an internal file obtained by the Project on Government Control. But Cuffari did not press department management to explain why they did not keep those documents, or attempt to retrieve them, according to the four people briefed on the watchdog’s actions. Cuffari also did not alert Congress of the missing records.

These and other discrepancies prompted the top Democrats investigating the attack and the Department of Homeland Security to issue a Secret Service subpoena and ask Cuffari to withdraw from the investigation.

Representatives Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, and Carolyn B. Maloney (DN.Y.), chair of the committee that oversees the inspectors general, Cuffari said in a letter Tuesday that they “did not have confidence” in his ability to conduct the investigation.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a statement Friday calling the missing messages an “extremely serious matter” and said he would ask the Justice Department to to intervene.

“Inspector General Cuffari’s inability to take immediate action after learning that these text messages had been deleted makes it clear that he should no longer be in charge of this investigation,” Durbin said in a statement. “That’s why I’m sending a letter today to Attorney General Garland asking him to step in and shed full light on what happened to these text messages and hold accountable those responsible.”

Cuffari was asked to respond to lawmakers by Aug. 9.

Cuffari opened a criminal investigation into the missing Secret Service text messages this month, one of dozens his office is conducting as part of its oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, the third-largest agency. from the country. Many, including Democrats in Congress, viewed the timing and motive of the investigation with suspicion, as Cuffari had not pushed to probe the fact that the tapes had been deleted when he first heard about it. months earlier. DHS encompasses agencies such as the Secret Service, Federal Protective Service, and Immigration and Border Protection.

Three people briefed on its handling of the missing text messages painted a picture of an office that was hesitant about how to handle the matter, even though it had highly trained officials ready to tackle the problem and federal agencies willing to help. cooperate.

A former senior official in the inspector general’s office who left the agency this year said Cuffari’s office asked the executive to call the agency’s top forensic expert on a Saturday early in this year to tell him to “step aside” from further forensic work for secrecy. Service telephones.

“This was done under the direction of the inspector general’s office,” the former senior executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity as they are no longer in the office.

Cuffari’s office continued to release reports and, on the day lawmakers asked him to stand down, tweeted on the prizes they had won for the inspections. The awards are given by the Board of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an independent executive agency that supports inspectors general.

In their letter, Thompson and Maloney asked the board to find a replacement for Cuffari in the investigation of the missing Secret Service texts.

The board said it could only help find a replacement if Cuffari decided to recuse himself and asked them for help finding a replacement, its executive director, Alan F. Boehm, said in an email.

Cuffari sent a letter to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees this month accusing the Secret Service of deleting text messages from the time of the assault on the Capitol and after he requested them. for his own investigation.

The Secret Service denied maliciously deleting text messages and said the deletions were part of a planned “system migration” of its phones. They said none of the texts sought by Cuffari’s office had gone missing.

The Federal Records Act and other laws require federal agencies to preserve government records, and it is a crime, punishable by fines and jail time, to willfully destroy government records.

In addition to the Secret Service, text messages from Trump’s Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting Assistant Secretary Ken Cuccinelli are missing during a key period leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, according to four people briefed on the issue and internal emails.

But both Cuccinelli and Wolf said they returned their phones, while Wolf put it in a Tweeter“fully loaded,” and said it was up to DHS to keep their posts.

On Twitter, wolf wrote“I’ve complied with all data retention laws and have returned all of my fully loaded gear to the Department. Full stop. DHS has all of my texts, emails, phone logs, schedules, etc. Any issues with missing data should be referred to DHS.

Cuccinelli, also on Twittersaid he handed over his phone before leaving DHS and suggested the agency “wipe” his phone after he left.

The National Archives and Records Administration has requested more information about the “potential unauthorized deletion” of Secret Service text messages, but that investigation may be delayed by Cuffari’s criminal investigation into the agency. The Archives had no immediate comment Friday on Wolf and Cuccinelli’s text messages.


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