The Justice Department inspector general could not recover any texts from the phones assigned to two controversial FBI officials for their work with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III because by the time investigators requested the devices, they had been reset in preparation for others to use them, according to a report made public Thursday.
The report detailed glitches that complicated the inspector general’s ability to recover and review messages exchanged by former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page on government devices.
That is significant because the two have become infamous for trading texts critical of President Trump while they worked on two of the bureau’s most politically charged cases: the probe of Hillary Clinton’s private email server and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Importantly, the inspector general wrote there was “no evidence” that Strzok and Page “attempted to circumvent” the FBI’s data-retention policies, and the “content of the text messages did not appear to be a factor” in whether and how they were retained.
Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team in July 2017 — and ultimately fired from the FBI this year — after the communications were discovered. Page separately left the team and later the bureau.
Conservatives have seized on the messages between the two to suggest that both the Russia and Clinton probes were tainted by bias because Strzok and Page spoke favorably of Clinton and negatively of Trump. Trump has derided Strzok and Page, and previously questioned the inability to recover all of their messages.
The inspector general, in a separate report released in June, had asserted that the messages indicated a “willingness to take official action” to hurt Trump’s chances of becoming president. The inspector general added, though, that the Clinton investigation had not been rigged to produce no charges.
Aitan Goelman, Strzok’s lawyer, has called that report “critically flawed” and noted Strzok advocated for taking aggressive steps that sometimes put him at odds with Justice Department bosses.
Goelman said Thursday he was still reviewing the report on text message recovery. A representative for Page did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The Justice Department had previously acknowledged that a technical glitch initially prevented thousands of messages from Page and Strzok from being saved. The inspector general detailed Thursday the great lengths its investigators went to recover them — even consulting with the Defense Department, which had a forensic tool that other agencies apparently did not.
The inspector general wrote that the FBI seems to have multiple problems with its automated system for storing messages. The report said the bureau acknowledged, as of Nov. 18, that it was “still not reliably collecting text messages from approximately 10 percent” of FBI mobile phones.
That the bureau has an automated system at all is notable. The inspector general wrote that the Justice Department does not use a similar tool.
In a written response to the report, the FBI wrote that it had been working on problems with retaining text messages since 2014 and that it was “not aware of any solution that closes the collection gap entirely on its current mobile device platforms.”
“It is important to recognize, however, that complete collection of text messages is neither required nor necessary to meet the FBI’s legal preservation obligations,” the FBI wrote.
The inspector general wrote that its investigators asked to review the devices about six months after Page and Strzok turned in the Justice Department phones assigned to them for their work with the special counsel. By that time, the inspector general wrote, Strzok’s phone already had been reassigned to another FBI agent and reset to its factory settings, and did not contain data about Strzok’s use.
Strzok’s phone, the inspector general wrote, already had been reviewed by the special counsel’s records officer, who said it had “no substantive text messages.” That officer, though, told the inspector general’s office she did not review Page’s phone.
Page’s device, the inspector general’s office wrote, was recovered in September. It had been reset about two weeks after Page left the special counsel’s office in July 2017 but not yet reassigned, the inspector general found.
The inspector general found there was no record to indicate who handled the phone after Page turned it in. Page told the special counsel’s office that she had left her phone and laptop on a bookshelf on her final day in the office. A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
The deputy attorney general’s office told the inspector general’s office that the Justice Department “routinely resets mobile devices to factory settings when the device is returned from a user to enable that device to be issued to another user in the future.”