Secret Service deleted texts from January 5 and 6, 2021, official said

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A government watchdog accused the U.S. Secret Service of deleting texts from Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, after his office requested them as part of an investigation into the U.S. Capitol attack, according to a letter sent to lawmakers this week.

Joseph V. Cuffari, head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General, wrote to the heads of Parliament’s and the Senate Homeland Security Committee, indicating that the text messages had disappeared and that efforts to investigate the January 6, 2021 attack were being thwarted.

“The Department informed us that many SMS messages from the US Secret Service (USSS) from January 5 and 6, 2021, were deleted as part of a device replacement program,” he wrote in a letter dated Wednesday, obtained by The Washington Post. The letter was previously reported on by Intercept and CNN.

Cuffari stressed that the deletions came “after The Office of Inspector General requested copies of the text messages for his own investigation, signaling that they were part of a pattern of DHS opposition to his inquiries. Employees are required by law to submit records so he can audit the extensive national security agency, but he said they have “repeatedly” refused to provide them until a lawyer reviews them.

“This review led to weeks-long delays in OIG’s retrieval of records and created confusion as to whether all records had been produced,” he wrote, offering to brief House and Senate committees on “the access issues.”

Secret Service text messages can provide insight into the agency’s actions on the day of the uprising and possibly President Donald Trump. A former White House official last month told a select committee of parliament investigating the attack on the Capitol that Trump knew his supporters were armed, wanted to lead the mob to the Capitol and physically attacked the senior Secret Service agent, who told him , that he could not.

Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said Thursday that the agency did not maliciously delete text messages following a request.

“In fact, the Secret Service has fully cooperated with the OIG in every respect – whether it be interviews, documents, emails or texts,” he said.

“First, in January 2021, before any inspection was opened by the OIG on this subject, the USSS began resetting its mobile phones to factory settings as part of a pre-planned, three-month system migration. In the process, data from some phones was lost,” he said. he. ”DHS OIG requested electronic communications for the first time on February 26, 2021. After the migration was well underway, the Secret Service notified DHS OIG of the loss of certain telephone data, but confirmed to OIG that none of the texts it searched for had been lost during the migration. “

“Second, DHS OIG’s allegation of DHS’s cooperation with its investigation is neither correct nor new. On the contrary, DHS OIG has previously claimed that its employees were not given adequate and timely access to materials due to legal review,” Guglielmi said. times and publicly denied this claim, including in response to the OIG’s last two biannual reports to Congress. It is unclear why the OIG raises this issue again. “

Cuffari, nominated by Trump in 2019 and confirmed by the Senate, has come under considerable criticism since taking office. His first-year audits plummeted to historic lows, clashed with immigration and customs officials over the accuracy of a detention center inspection, and he blocked investigations into the Secret Service’s handling of protests in Lafayette Square following the assassination of George Floyd and the spread of coronavirus. in the ranks of the Agency, documents show.

The OIG’s office is under investigation by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), an independent executive body, for unpublished allegations of fraud, according to an internal email circulated to the office in January.

The nonprofit Project On Government Oversight (POGO), an independent watchdog, has called on President Biden to remove Cuffari.

Cuffari’s office did not respond to requests for comment Thursday, and DHS had no immediate comment on his allegations.

One person who was briefed on the Secret Service’s response to Cuffari’s letter said the agency rejects his characteristics that they have eliminated or deleted records after Cuffari’s office requested them. Like others interviewed for this report, this person spoke on condition of anonymity to share confidential internal discussions.

According to two people who were briefed on the document request, the Secret Service initiated a long-planned replacement of staff telephones for the entire office in January 2021 to improve communication across the agency.

It was not until sometime in February 2021 that Cuffari’s office requested that the Secret Service produce records centered on January 6 and the days leading up to the attack on the Capitol, and sought internal agency communications, memoranda, emails and telephone records as eg. text messages.

By At the time of the request, people said, as many as a third of Secret Service staff had been given new cell phones.

Most of the replacement program began with employees in offices in Washington, and if they did not back up their old text messages, people said, the information from January 6 and the days before it is lost. It was conceivable include the texts sent and received by former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Tony Ornato and former Trump security chief of staff Bobby Engel and other senior Secret Service executives.

This device replacement program and consequent failure to back up texts does not appear to affect e-mails.

The Secret Service has a policy that requires employees to back up and store public communications when withdrawing old electronic or telephone devices, but in practice, staff do not consistently back up texts from phones.

A similar problem emerged in 2018 when the Justice Department inspector general said he used “forensic tools” to recover missing text messages from two senior FBI officials who had investigated Hillary Clinton and Trump and exchanged notes critical of the president. The missing messages created criticism when GOP leaders and the president questioned how the FBI failed to preserve them.

The Secret Service has had a history of important records disappearing under cover of night, and agency staff have refused to cooperate when investigators came and called to seek information.

As a congressional committee investigates assassinations and assassination attempts, it searched for boxes of records that allegedly showed the Secret Service received ample advance warnings and threats before President John F. Kennedy’s death that white supremacists and other organizations planned to kill Kennedy using high power. rifles from tall buildings. The Secret Service told investigators that the records had been destroyed as part of a normal demolition of old archives – days after investigators had requested them.

Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said lawmakers “need to get to the bottom of whether the Secret Service destroyed federal records or whether the Department of Homeland Security prevented oversight.”

“The DHS Inspector General needs these records to carry out his independent oversight, and the public deserves to have a complete picture of what happened on January 6,” he said in a statement. “I want to learn more from the DHS Inspector General about these allegations.”

Devlin Barrett of Machipongo, Va., Contributed to this report.

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