DHS watchdog halted efforts to obtain missing text messages from Secret Service, Trump officials

The watchdog at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) abandoned efforts to recover missing text messages from across its various agencies deleted in the wake of Jan. 6 and minimized its criticism of those that failed to produce them, according to emails released by lawmakers.

The evidence, released Monday by the House committees on oversight and homeland security, was accompanied by a renewed call for Inspector General Joseph Cuffari to step aside from his investigations into how DHS agencies responded to the Jan. 6 attack. 

“These documents raise troubling new concerns that your office not only failed to notify Congress for more than a year that critical evidence in this investigation was missing, but your senior staff deliberately chose not to pursue that evidence and then appear to have taken steps to cover up these failures,” the committees wrote in a letter to Cuffari.

The letter marks the second time in a week that Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the Committee on Oversight, and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, have asked for Cuffari to recuse himself from the investigation.

The letter from the committees offers more details following a Friday report from The Washington Post outlining how Cuffari’s office halted efforts to recover or obtain text messages from the Secret Service or from top Trump-era DHS officials.

Cuffari first notified lawmakers earlier this month that some Secret Service agents’ text messages were “erased” as part of a device replacement program. (The agency contends any text messages that might be missing were lost through a software transition.) 

Documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight also indicate that Cuffari was unable to obtain text messages from acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf or his deputy Ken Cuccinelli.

In each case, Cuffari knew for months that the messages were lost, and only informed lawmakers of the issues with the Secret Service, a potential violation of laws governing inspectors general that require rapid notification of “particularly serious or flagrant” abuses of public records laws.

“Your July 13, 2022, letter failed to mention that a year earlier, and just six weeks after you initially requested text messages of Secret Service personnel, senior officials in your office instructed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) no longer needed Secret Service text messages as part of its investigation related to the January 6 attack,” the committees wrote.

The two panels obtained emails from Cuffari’s deputy, Thomas Kait, directing a liaison to halt efforts to obtain text messages.

“Jim, please use this email as a reference to our conversation where I said we no longer request phone records and text messages from the USSS [United States Secret Service] relating to the events on January 6th,” Kait wrote on July 27.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) would reverse course roughly four months later and seek some of the messages, but as the watchdog hit a wall in obtaining them, it diminished the issue in an agency memo.

A February document initially noted that OIG had failed to get the requested information. But Kait and others tweaked the document, instead writing that they “received a timely and consolidated response from each component to our December 3, 2021 request; however, additional and clarifying information is needed before we can complete the reviews.”