The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog needs watching

The Department of Homeland Security headquarters in northwest Washington on Feb. 25, 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, charged with guarding against abuse at the agency, might have engaged in wrongdoing instead. Now, Congress must probe not only how Secret Service text messages related to the Jan. 6 insurrection went missing but also whether the official responsible for getting to the bottom of this implausible mishap covered it up.

Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairs of the House Oversight Committee and House Homeland Security Committee, respectively, wrote to Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari last week demanding that he cooperate with their investigation — after, they say in their letter, he refused to produce requested documents or allow his staff to sit for transcribed interviews. The need for this withheld information is real: The Secret Service communications, including those from members of Donald Trump’s security detail, supposedly disappeared in an “IT migration,” a slip-up almost unbelievable for an arm of government immersed in cyber incident response. These texts could provide insight into the then-president’s actions and state of mind as armed rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. Cuffari’s job was to figure out what happened — but he appears instead to have obscured the truth. He delayed informing Congress of the purge, as required by law, for months, even though attorneys prepared a detailed alert that his staff recommended he send. When he did finally share this essential information, he left out that then-acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf and then-acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli’s texts had also been deleted. Now, The Post reports that his office called off the attempt to extract the messages despite previous plans to do so, even instructing a top forensic expert to “stand down” on the effort.

A newly released report from the Justice Department’s inspector general reveals that Mr. Cuffari was previously accused of violating ethics regulations when he ran an Arizona field office for the agency. He also rejected a staff recommendation to review the Secret Service’s use of force at Lafayette Square during the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

Mr. Cuffari has finally launched a criminal investigation of the Secret Service’s text deletion. That investigation itself is necessary and important, but he’s the wrong person to lead it. The evidence that he obstructed the probe in the past suggests he’s unfit to pursue it in the present — and should step aside so that another inspector general can be appointed. Meanwhile, Congress, including by issuing subpoenas if necessary, must do what it can to investigate him.

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