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Secret Service erased texts from Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, official says

The House Jan. 6 select committee's chairman, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), closes the seventh public hearing in Washington on July 12. (Reuters/Pool)
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A government watchdog accused the U.S. Secret Service of erasing texts from Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, after his office requested them as part of an inquiry 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 Inspector General, wrote to the leaders of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees indicating that the text messages have vanished and that efforts to investigate the Jan. 6, 2021, attack were being hindered.

“The Department notified us that many U.S. Secret Service (USSS) text messages, from January 5 and 6, 2021 were erased as part of a device-replacement program,” he wrote in a letter dated Wednesday and obtained by The Washington Post. The letter was earlier reported on by the Intercept and CNN.

Cuffari emphasized that the erasures came “after the Office of Inspector General requested copies of the text messages for its own investigation, and signaled that they were part of a pattern of DHS resistance to his inquiries. Staff members are required by law to surrender records so that he can audit the sprawling national security agency, but he said they have “repeatedly” refused to provide them until an attorney reviews them.

“This review led to weeks-long delays in OIG obtaining records and created confusion over whether all records had been produced,” he wrote, and offered to brief the House and Senate committees on the “access issues.”

The Jan. 6, 2021 House committee held its latest public hearing on July 12, focusing on how President Donald Trump summoned far-right militant groups to D.C. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The Secret Service’s text messages could provide insight into the agency’s actions on the day of the insurrection and possibly those of President Donald Trump. A former White House aide last month told the House select committee investigating the assault on the Capitol that Trump knew his supporters were armed, wanted to lead the mob to the Capitol and said she was told that he physically assailed the senior Secret Service agent who told him 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 been fully cooperating 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 OIG on this subject, USSS began to reset its mobile phones to factory settings as part of a pre-planned, three-month system migration. In that process, data resident on some phones was lost,” he said. “DHS OIG requested electronic communications for the first time on Feb. 26, 2021, after the migration was well under way. The Secret Service notified DHS OIG of the loss of certain phones’ data, but confirmed to OIG that none of the texts it was seeking had been lost in the migration.”

“Second, DHS OIG’s allegation regarding DHS’s cooperation with its investigation is neither correct nor new. To contrary, DHS OIG has previously alleged that its employees were not granted appropriate and timely access to materials due to attorney review,” Guglielmi said. “DHS has repeatedly and publicly debunked this allegation, including in response to OIG’s last two semi-annual reports to Congress. It is unclear why OIG is raising this issue again.”

Cuffari, nominated by Trump in 2019 and confirmed by the Senate, has faced significant criticism since he took over the office. His first-year audits plummeted to historic lows, he clashed with Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the veracity of an inspection of a detention center, and he blocked investigations into the Secret Service’s handling of protests in Lafayette Square following the murder of George Floyd and the spread of the coronavirus in the agency’s ranks, documents show.

The OIG’s office is under investigation by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), an independent entity in the executive branch, for undisclosed allegations of misconduct, 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 on Thursday, and DHS had no immediate comment on his allegations.

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

According to two people briefed on the documents request, the Secret Service began a long preplanned, agencywide replacement of staff telephones to improve communication across the agency in January 2021.

It wasn’t until sometime in February 2021 that Cuffari’s office requested that the Secret Service produce records that centered on Jan. 6 and the days leading up to the attack on the Capitol, seeking internal agency communications, memorandums, emails and telephonic records such as text messages.

By the time of the request, the people said, as many as a third of Secret Service personnel had been given new cellphones.

Most of the replacement program began with staff members in Washington offices, and if they did not back up their old text messages, the people said, the information from Jan. 6 and the days before that is lost. That could conceivably include the texts sent and received by former White House deputy chief of staff Tony Ornato and former Trump security detail leader Bobby Engel and other senior leaders in the Secret Service.

This device replacement program, and resulting failure to back up texts, does not appear to affect emails.

The Secret Service has a policy requiring employees to back up and store government communications when they retire old electronic or telephonic devices, but in practice, staff do not consistently back up texts from phones.

A similar issue came up 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 generated 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 members refusing to cooperate when investigators came calling seeking information.

When a congressional committee was investigating assassinations and assassination attempts, it sought boxes of records that reportedly showed the Secret Service received ample advance warnings and threats before President John F. Kennedy’s death that white supremacists and other organizations were plotting to kill Kennedy using high-powered rifles from tall buildings. The Secret Service told investigators the records had been destroyed as part of a normal culling of old archives — days after investigators had requested them.

Sen. 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 the Department of Homeland Security obstructed oversight.”

“The DHS Inspector General needs these records to do its independent oversight and the public deserves to have a full picture of what occurred on January 6th,” he said in a statement. “I will be learning more from the DHS Inspector General about these concerning allegations.”

clarification

This piece has been updated to note that former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson said she was told President Donald Trump physically assailed a Secret Service agent who told him he could not go to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. She did not personally witness the alleged episode.

Devlin Barrett in Machipongo, Va., contributed to this report.

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