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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo is seen on a law enforcement vehicle in Washington, D.C. on March 7, 2017. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Docs Show DHS Watchdog Delayed Telling Congress About Deleted Secret Service Texts

The Project on Government Oversight says the records reveal a pattern of Inspector General Joseph Cuffari "rejecting proposals to inform Congress about the Secret Service's resistance to oversight."

Jessica Corbett

A group that investigates government malfeasance revealed Thursday that a federal watchdog for months delayed notifying Congress about the Secret Service deleting text messages—which were requested by oversight officials—related to the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) last month opened a probe into the destruction of texts from the day before and day of last year's attack. Secret Service claims the messages were lost as "part of a device replacement program."

While independent watchdogs had welcomed the launch of that investigation, the new Project on Government Oversight (POGO) report casts the OIG—and specifically Inspector General Joseph Cuffari—in a critical light.

POGO obtained a five-paragraph document, which would have alerted Congress that "on February 23, 2022—more than two months after OIG renewed its requests for select Secret Service employees' text messages—Secret Service claimed inability to extract text message content due to an April 2021 mobile phone system migration, which wiped all data."

That document—from April 1, 2022—also shared other issues with Secret Service and its "resistance to OIG's oversight activities."

As POGO explains:

The April 1 paragraphs were intended for inclusion in a public report that was eventually sent to Congress this summer, a document obtained by POGO shows. That report is legally required to disclose when an agency "has resisted or objected to oversight activities" or "restricted or significantly delayed access to information."

But instead of the five paragraphs informing lawmakers that the Secret Service had purged texts, the June report contained only two sentences about delayed access to Secret Service records and the January 6 review, and neither mentioned that the agency had admitted to erasing the messages.

The alert could also have been sent even earlier than June at Cuffari's discretion, given that the Inspector General Act gives him the power to inform Congress about serious problems at any time, say sources familiar with the matter but who are not authorized to speak to the press.

Cuffari eventually sent key congressional leaders a letter about the missing messages on July 13. His notice excluded some details about issues with Secret Service that had been addressed in the April draft.

POGO noted that the DHS OIG did not respond to a request for comment.

"The new records show a pattern of Cuffari repeatedly rejecting proposals to inform Congress about the Secret Service's resistance to oversight," said POGO, pointing to previous reporting about Cuffari refusing to tell lawmakers about various problems and rejecting staff recommendations to review the Secret Service's actions.

Liz Hempowicz, POGO's director of public policy, highlighted in a piece for Just Security on Thursday that the group is calling for Cuffari's ouster.

"Cuffari's shortcomings as an inspector general were clear long before they landed him in the middle of one of the most high-profile investigations of our time," Hempowicz wrote. "These failures find Cuffari now under scrutiny from the White House, Congress, and the Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, and are why we at POGO recently reiterated our call on President Joe Biden to remove Cuffari from his position."

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