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

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The Department of Homeland Security’s top watchdog dismissed his investigative team’s effort to collect agency phones to try to recover deleted Secret Service texts this year, according to four people with knowledge of the decision and the records. internals reviewed by The Washington Post.

In early February, after learning that Secret Service text messages had been deleted as part of a migration to new devices, staff in the office of Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari planned to contact all DHS agencies that offered data specialists to help him retrieve messages from his 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 of the agency’s phones, according to three people briefed on the decision.

The latest revelation comes as Democratic lawmakers have 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 on Jan. 6. 2021

Cuffari wrote a letter to the House and Senate homeland security committees this month saying Secret Service text messages from the time of the attack had been “deleted.” But he did not immediately disclose that his office first discovered the deletion in December and did not alert lawmakers or examine the phones. It also failed to alert Congress that other text messages were missing, including those from Trump’s top two appointees who lead the Department of Homeland Security during the final days of the administration.

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

“To preserve the integrity of our work and consistent with U.S. Attorney General guidelines, DHS OIG does not confirm the existence of ongoing criminal reviews or investigations, or comment on our communications with Congress,” the statement said.

Cuffari, a former adviser to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), has been in his post since July 2019 after being appointed by Trump.

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

Text messages from Jan. 6 to Wolf and Cuccinelli from Trump Homeland Security are missing

After discovering that some of the text messages the watchdog was looking for had been deleted, the Federal Protective Service, a DHS agency that guards federal buildings, offered their phones to the inspector general’s investigators, saying that they did not have the resources to recover the lost texts and other records about them, according to three people familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive investigation.

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

Staff investigators also wrote a letter in late January and early February to all DHS agencies offering to help them recover any text messages or other data that may have been lost. But Cuffari management team later changed that draft to say that if agencies were unable to retrieve phone messages during the Jan. 6 period, they “should provide a detailed list of the data unavailable and the reason the information is unavailable.” said the three people.

Cuffari also learned in late February that text messages for two top DHS officials under the Trump administration on the day of the attack were missing, lost in a “reset” of their government phones when they left the job in January 2021, he said. an internal record obtained by the Government Oversight Project. But Cuffari did not press department leadership to explain why they did not keep those records, or try to retrieve them, according to the four people briefed on the watchdog’s actions. Cuffari also failed to alert Congress to the missing records.

These and other discrepancies prompted key Democrats studying the attack and the Department of Homeland Security to subpoena the Secret Service and ask Cuffari to recuse himself from the investigation.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, and Carolyn B. Maloney (DN.Y.), committee chair which oversees inspectors general, said in a letter to Cuffari on Tuesday that they “have no confidence” that he can conduct the investigation.

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

“The fact that Inspector General Cuffari did not take immediate action upon learning that these text messages had been deleted makes it clear that he should no longer be entrusted with this investigation,” Durbin said in a statement. “That’s why today I’m sending a letter to Attorney General Garland asking him to step in and get to the bottom of what happened with these text messages and hold those responsible accountable.”

Cuffari was asked to respond to the lawmakers by August 9.

Cuffari opened a criminal investigation into the missing Secret Service text messages this month, one of dozens of inquiries his office is making as part of its oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, the nation’s third-largest agency. country Many, including Democrats in Congress, viewed the timing and reason for the investigation with suspicion, as Cuffari had not pushed to investigate the records being deleted when he learned of them months earlier. The DHS encompasses agencies such as the Secret Service, the Federal Protective Service, and Immigration and Border Protection.

Three people briefed on its handling of the missing text messages painted a portrait of an office that balked at how to handle the matter, even though it had highly trained officials ready to attack the problem and federal agencies willing to cooperate.

A former top executive in the inspector general’s office who left the agency this year said Cuffari’s office directed the executive to call the agency’s top forensics expert on a Saturday early this year to tell him to “retire” to pursue forensic work for the Secret Service. Service telephone numbers.

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

Cuffari’s office has continued to issue reports and, on the day lawmakers called for him to withdraw, tweeted about the awards they had won for the inspections. The awards come from the Council of Inspectors General for 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 into 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 Capitol storming after he had requested them for his own investigation. .

The Secret Service denied maliciously deleting text messages and said the deletions were part of a pre-planned “system migration” of their phones. They said none of the texts Cuffari’s office was looking for 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 intentionally destroy government records.

In addition to the Secret Service, text messages for Trump’s acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf and acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli are missing during a key period before the Jan. 6 attack, according to four people briefed on the matter and internal emails.

But Cuccinelli and Wolf said they turned in their phones, as Wolf put it in a tweet, “fully charged,” and said it was up to DHS to preserve their messages.

On Twitter, Wolf wrote: “I complied with all data retention laws and returned all my equipment fully loaded to the Department. Period. DHS has all my texts, emails, phone records, schedules, etc. Any issues with missing data should be addressed to DHS.”

Cuccinelli, also on Twitter, said he turned in his phone before he left DHS and suggested the agency “wiped” his phone after he left.

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

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