Homeland Security watchdog halted plan to recover Secret Service texts, records show
The Department of Homeland Security’s chief watchdog scrapped its 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 internal records reviewed by The Washington Post.
In early February, after learning that the Secret Service’s text messages had been erased as part of a migration to new devices, staff at Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari’s office planned to contact all DHS agencies offering to have data specialists 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 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 the Secret Service’s text messages from the time of the attack had been “erased.” But he did not immediately disclose that his office first discovered that deletion in December and failed to alert lawmakers or examine the phones. Nor did he alert Congress that other text messages were missing, including those of the two top Trump appointees running 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 or otherwise comment about ongoing reviews or criminal investigations, nor do we discuss our communications with Congress,” the statement read.
Cuffari, a former adviser to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), has been in his post since July 2019 after being nominated by Trump.
DHS spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said the agency is cooperating with investigators and “looking into every avenue to recover text messages and other materials for the Jan. 6 investigations.”
After discovering that some of the text messages the watchdog sought had been deleted, the Federal Protective Service, a DHS agency that guards federal buildings, offered their phones to the inspector general’s investigators, saying they lacked the resources to recover lost texts and other records on their own, according to three people familiar with the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive investigation.
A senior forensics analyst in the inspector general’s office took steps to collect the Federal Protective Service phones, the people said. But late on the night of Friday, Feb. 18, one of several deputies who report to Cuffari’s management team wrote an email to investigators instructing them not to take the phones and not to seek any data from them, according to a copy of an internal record that 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 might have been lost. But Cuffari’s management team later changed that draft to say that if agencies could not retrieve phone messages for the Jan. 6 period, they “should provide a detailed list of unavailable data and the reason the information is unavailable,” the three people said.
Cuffari also learned in late February that text messages for the top two officials at DHS under the Trump administration on the day of the attack were missing, lost in a “reset” of their government phones when they left their jobs in January 2021, according to an internal record obtained by the Project on Government Oversight. But Cuffari did not press the department’s leadership to explain why they did not preserve these records, nor try to recover them, according to the four people briefed on the watchdog’s actions. Cuffari also did not alert Congress to the missing records.
These and other discrepancies prompted key Democrats scrutinizing the attack and the Department of Homeland Security to issue a subpoena to the Secret Service and to call for Cuffari to recuse himself from the investigation.
Reps. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee and the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, and Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the committee that oversees inspectors general, said in a letter to Cuffari on Tuesday that they “do not have confidence” that he can conduct the investigation.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), chair 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.
“Inspector General Cuffari’s failure to take immediate action upon learning that these text messages had been deleted makes clear that he should no longer be entrusted with 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 get to the bottom of what happened to these text messages and hold accountable those who are responsible.”
Cuffari was asked to answer the lawmakers by Aug. 9.
Cuffari opened a criminal investigation into the Secret Service’s missing text messages this month, one of dozens of inquiries his office does as part of its work overseeing the Department of Homeland Security, the nation’s third-largest agency. Many, including Democrats in Congress, viewed the timing and motive for the inquiry with suspicion, as Cuffari had not pushed to probe the fact that the records were deleted when he first learned of it months earlier. DHS encompasses agencies such as the Secret Service, the Federal Protective Service and immigration and border protection.
Three people briefed on his handling of the missing text messages painted a portrait of an office that faltered over how to handle the matter, even though they had highly skilled officials ready to attack the issue and federal agencies willing to cooperate.
A former senior executive at the inspector general’s office who left the agency this year said Cuffari’s office instructed the executive to call the agency’s top forensic expert on a Saturday early this year to tell him to “stand down” on pursuing the forensics work for the Secret Service’s phones.
“That was done at the direction of the inspector general’s front office,” the former senior executive said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are no longer at the office.
Cuffari’s office has continued to issue reports and, on the day the lawmakers called for him to step aside, tweeted about awards that they had won for inspections. The awards are from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an independent executive agency that supports inspectors general.
In their letter, Thompson and Maloney asked the council to find a replacement for Cuffari on the investigation into the missing Secret Service texts.
The council said it could only help find a replacement if Cuffari decided to recuse himself and asked them for assistance 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 erasing text messages from the time around the assault on the Capitol and after he had asked for them for his own investigation.
The Secret Service denied maliciously erasing text messages and said the deletions were part of a preplanned “system migration” of its phones. They said none of the texts Cuffari’s office sought had disappeared.
The Federal Records Act and other laws require federal agencies to preserve government records, and it is a crime, punishable by fines and prison time, to willfully destroy government records.
In addition to the Secret Service, text messages for Trump acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf and acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli are missing for a key period leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, according to four people briefed on the matter and internal emails.
But Cuccinelli and Wolf both said they turned in their phones, as Wolf put it in a tweet, “fully loaded,” 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. Full stop. DHS has all my texts, emails, phone logs, schedules, etc. Any issues with missing data needs to be addressed to DHS.”
Cuccinelli, also on Twitter, said he handed in his phone before departing DHS and suggested that the agency “erased” his phone after he left.
The National Archives and Records Administration has sought more information on “the potential unauthorized deletion” of Secret Service text messages, but that inquiry could be delayed by Cuffari’s criminal investigation into the agency. The archives had no immediate comment Friday about Wolf and Cuccinelli’s text messages.“
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