Data Security, Leadership, Compliance Management

Lawmakers accuse DHS watchdog of obstruction in probe of Secret Service texts

Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., questions witnesses during a July 27, 2021, hearing of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Thompson and House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., wrote to the DHS Inspector General accusing his office of obstructing congressional investigations in...
House Select Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., wrote to the DHS Inspector General accusing his office of obstructing congressional investigations into missing and deleted texts from the U.S. Secret Service in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Two House committee chairs are accusing Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joe Cuffari of stonewalling Congress and potentially violating the law by not turning over documents and communications around the deletion of Secret Service texts in the days following the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.

In an Aug. 16 letter addressed to Cuffari, House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said they’ve reached out three times in an effort to obtain further documentation and interviews with staff relating to DHS IG’s investigation of missing or deleted Secret Service texts and another detailing allegations of domestic abuse and sexual harassment by employees of USSS, Customs and Border Protection and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

In both cases, the committee leaders said they are investigating allegations that Cuffari sought to censor those reports while blocking relevant staffers from speaking with Congress. They characterized Cuffari’s refusals as a violation of the Inspector General Act which requires IGs to immediately notify the head of an agency when they become “aware of particularly serious or flagrant problems, abuses, or deficiencies,” who in turn must notify Congress within seven days. They threatened unspecified consequences if their demands aren't met.

“Your obstruction of the Committees’ investigations is unacceptable, and your justifications for this noncompliance appear to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of Congress’s authority and your duties as an Inspector General,” Maloney and Thompson wrote. “If you continue to refuse to comply with our requests, we will have no choice but to consider alternate measures to ensure your compliance.”

Days after thousands of supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, brawled with police and attempted to disrupt the certification of incoming President Joe Biden, at least four congressional committees wrote to the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to instruct them to preserve records related to the riot. Less than two weeks later on Jan. 27, the Secret Service executed a phone and data migration plan that would wipe all data on existing phones and put the onus for backing up and preserving those records on individual employees.

In July 2022, Cuffari notified Congress that certain text messages from Secret Service personnel over that period of time had been erased. Subsequent reporting by the Washington Post and the Project on Government Oversight revealed that Cuffari’s office knew about the deleted texts for more than a year but had failed to notify Congress. The committees also obtained a July 2021 email from DHS Deputy Inspector General Thomas Kait indicating that they were no longer interested in pursuing the records, telling a DHS representative that they are “no longer request[ing] phone records and text messages from USSS relating to the events on January 6.”

Thompson and Maloney said these and other public reports strongly indicate a potential cover up on the part of DHS and the IG, and are seeking additional records that include “drafts, working papers, or communications” regarding the reports and any attempts by DHS IG to censor or remove relevant portions.

In an Aug. 8 letter from DHS IG released by the committee, Cuffari claims to have to reported “various access issues” with DHS component agencies through a 2021 semiannual report to Congress. That report claims unnamed DHS agencies “significantly delayed OIG’s access to Department records, thereby impeding the progress of OIG’s review of the January 6 events at the Capitol” but does not mention the Secret Service or the erasure of text messages.

Earlier this month, the Project on Government Oversight released a draft of an April 1 alert developed by DHS IG to inform Congress about the missing texts. It specifically names requirements in the Inspector General Act to report obstruction and reveals that Secret Service agents were unresponsive to some records requests related to the deleted texts, cited protocols not backed up in U.S. law for the delays and declined to identify reviewers processing the records requests. The alert, drafted on April 1, 2022, was never sent.

An April 1, 2022, DHS IG alert to Congress drafted — but never sent — that would have notified Congress about efforts by U.S. Secret Service to obstruct investigation into missing and deleted texts related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Source: the Project on Government Oversight)

In his Aug. 8 letter, Cuffari declined to comply with the additional document and interview requests, citing an unspecified, ongoing criminal investigation.

“To protect the integrity of our work and preserve our independence, we do not share information about ongoing matters, like the information you requested in your letters,” Cuffari wrote. “Similarly, we do not authorize our staff to sit for transcribed interviews with your committee about these ongoing matters.”

But Thompson and Maloney say U.S. law clearly gives Congress the right to conduct its own independent investigation and seek records, and testimony from witnesses. An earlier notification to Congress would have “provided Congress with a detailed explanation of Secret Service’s resistance to OIG’s oversight activities” and revealed the existence of the missing texts months earlier.

They flatly rejected Cuffari’s explanation that his office could not comply with congressional records requests during an ongoing criminal investigation, citing Supreme Court precedent and prior parallel congressional investigations in 2015 around the alleged targeting of conservative groups by the IRS and in 2017 examining alleged collusion and coordination between the Trump campaign and a Russian election influence operation during the 2016 presidential elections.

Additionally, they noted that the records and interviews are relevant and necessary because Congress is directly investigating potential misconduct by Cuffari and his office in conducting his duties.

“The Committees are seeking to determine whether you censored findings of domestic abuse and sexual harassment by DHS employees, covered up the extent of missing records in your investigation of the January 6, 2021, insurrection, and failed to fulfill the requirements for Inspectors General to perform their work with independence and objectivity,” Thompson and Maloney wrote. “Full compliance with our requests is necessary, in part to determine whether legislative reforms are needed to ensure the duties of Inspectors General are carried out in an ‘independent and objective’ manner and that Congress is kept ‘fully and currently informed about problems and deficiencies’ as required by law.”

Derek B. Johnson

Derek is a senior editor and reporter at SC Media, where he has spent the past three years providing award-winning coverage of cybersecurity news across the public and private sectors. Prior to that, he was a senior reporter covering cybersecurity policy at Federal Computer Week. Derek has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Hofstra University in New York and a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University in Virginia.

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