Homeland Security watchdog halted plan to recover Secret Service texts

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The Department of Homeland Security’s chief watchdog this year scrapped efforts by its investigative team to collect phones from the agencies to try to recover deleted Secret Service texts, according to four people with knowledge of the decision and internal data provided by The Washington Post have been reviewed.

In early February, after learning that Secret Service text messages had been deleted as part of a migration to new devices, the office of Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari planned to contact all DHS agencies. who offered data specialists to 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 telephones from desks. according to three people who were informed about the decision.

The latest revelation comes as Democratic lawmakers have accused Cuffari’s office of not aggressively investigating the agency’s actions in response to the violent attack on the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021.

Cuffari this month wrote a letter to the Home and Senate Homeland Security Committees saying that Secret Service text messages from the time of the attack had been “erased.” But he didn’t immediately disclose that his office first discovered that removal in December and failed to alert lawmakers or examine the phones. He also failed to warn Congress that other text messages were missing, including those from Trump’s two top appointees who headed the Department of Homeland Security during the administration’s final days.

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

“To maintain the integrity of our work and in accordance with the guidelines of the U.S. Attorney General, DHS OIG does not confirm the existence of or otherwise comment on pending assessments or criminal investigations, nor do we discuss our communications with Congress,” the statement said.

Cuffari, a former adviser to Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R), has been in office since July 2019 after being nominated by Trump.

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

January 6 missing lyrics for Wolf and Cuccinelli. from Trump Homeland Security

After discovering that some of the text messages the watchdog was looking for had been deleted, the Federal Defense Service, a DHS agency that monitors federal buildings, offered their phones to the inspector general’s investigators, saying they did not have the resources to recover lost texts and other data on their own, 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 retrieve the Federal Defense Service’s phones, the people said. But late on the night of Friday, Feb. 18, one of several delegates reporting to Cuffari’s management team wrote an email to investigators instructing them not to take the phones or request any records from them, according to a copy. of an internal record shared with The Post.

Personnel investigators also drafted a letter in late January and early February to all DHS agencies offering to help recover text messages or other data that may have been lost. But Cuffari .’s management team later that concept changed to say that if agencies were unable to retrieve phone messages for the Jan. 6 period, they would have to “provide a detailed list of unavailable data and the reason the information is not available,” the three people said.

Cuffari also learned in late February that text messages for the two top officials of DHS under the Trump administration were missing on the day of the attack, lost in a “reset” of their government phones when they left their jobs in January 2021, according to an internal report. record obtained by the Project on Government Oversight. But Cuffari did not urge the department’s leadership to explain why they did not keep this data, nor did they try to get it back, according to the four people who were aware of the watchdog’s actions. Cuffari also failed to notify Congress of the missing data.

These and other discrepancies prompted key Democrats to scrutinize the attack and the Department of Homeland Security to issue a subpoena to the Secret Service calling on 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 overseeing the 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 said he would ask the Justice Department to intervene. come.

“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 charged with this investigation,” Durbin said in a statement. “So today I am sending a letter to Attorney General Garland asking him to intervene and find out what happened to these text messages and hold those responsible to account.”

Cuffari was asked to answer lawmakers on Aug. 9.

Cuffari opened a criminal investigation this month into the Secret Service’s missing text messages, one of dozens of investigations his office is conducting as part of his work overseeing the Department of Homeland Security, the third-largest agency of the United Nations. country. Many, including Democrats in Congress, viewed the timing and motive for the investigation with suspicion, as Cuffari had not insisted that the data had been removed when he first learned of it months earlier. DHS includes agencies such as the Secret Service, the Federal Defense Service, and Immigration and Border Protection.

Three people who were briefed on his handling of the missing text messages painted a portrait of an office hesitant about how to handle the matter, even though they had highly skilled officials ready to handle the matter and federal agencies who were willing to cooperate.

A former senior executive of the Inspector General’s office who left the agency this year said Cuffari’s office instructed the executive to call the agency’s top forensics expert on a Saturday early this year to tell him “off.” to act” in continuing forensic work for the Secret Service. Service phones.

“That was done at the behest of the inspector general’s front office,” said the former chief executive 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 step aside, tweeted about prizes they had won for inspections. The awards come from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an independent executive body that supports inspectors general.

In their letter, Thompson and Maloney asked the council to find a replacement for Cuffari for the investigation into the Secret Service’s missing texts.

The council said it could only help find a replacement if Cuffari decided to pull himself out and ask them for help finding a replacement, the executive director, Alan F. Boehm, said in an email.

Cuffari this month sent a letter to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees accusing the Secret Service of erasing text messages from the time surrounding the Capitol attack and after requesting them for its own investigation.

The Secret Service denied maliciously deleting text messages, saying the deletions were part of a pre-planned “system migration” of its phones. They said none of the lyrics Cuffari was looking for was gone.

The Federal Records Act and other laws require federal agencies to keep 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 Acting Trump’s Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli are missing for a significant period prior to the Jan. 6 attack, according to four individuals briefed on the matter and internal. emails.

But Cuccinelli and Wolf both said they turned in their phones, like Wolf put it in a… tweet“fully loaded”, and said it was up to DHS to save their messages.

On Twitter, wolf wrote:: “I complied with all data retention laws and returned all my equipment fully charged to the department. Point. DHS has all my texts, emails, call logs, schedules, etc. Any issues with missing data should be addressed to DHS.

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

The National Archives and Records Administration has sought more information about “the possible unauthorized removal” of Secret Service text messages, but that investigation may be delayed by Cuffari’s criminal investigation into the agency. The archives did not immediately comment on Wolf and Cuccinelli’s text messages on Friday.

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