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Text messages from the secret service are missing, but not forgotten

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A watchdog organization learned in February that the Secret Service had removed almost all text messages from cell phones by the time of January 6, 2021., attack on the Capitol, but chose not to warn Congress, according to three people aware of the internal discussions.

That watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, also prepared in October 2021 to issue a public warning that the Secret Service and other division divisions were holding back on requests for records and texts about the attack on the Capitol, but did not. don’t, said the people briefed on the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal investigations.

The previously unreported revelation about the Inspector General’s months-long delay in marking the now-disappeared texts of the secret service from two whistleblowers who worked with Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, according to those who were aware of the internal discussions.

In recent days, a former employee approached the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), an independent group accountable to the government, describing the decision of Cuffari’s office not to immediately disclose that Secret Service data as of January 2021 of the desks’ phones were wiped. The group passed the information on to congressional officials, who independently confirmed the account with a second whistleblower.

Congressional staff and two whistleblowers shared concern that Cuffari’s office is failing to warn Congressional investigators into the missing data reduced the chances of recovering critical pieces of evidence related to the Jan. 6 attack.

Secret Service Agents’ Erased Texts some of whom planned President Donald Trump’s moves on Jan. 6 and followed Trump as he tried to undo the election results could shed light on what Trump was planning and saying.

“It is a dereliction of duty to leave the public and Congress in limbo for months on end,” said POGO lead researcher Nick Schwellenbach. “Digital forensic experts could have worked long ago to recover these lost texts.”

Cuffari’s office did not immediately respond to the allegations over the warning on Wednesday. His office sent an email saying that in his semi-annual reports to Congress in September and March, he disclosed his concern that Homeland Security and the Secret Service were delaying his office’s investigation into the Capitol attack. The reports do not mention the text messages.

The government’s independent accountability group has called on President Biden to remove Cuffari.

On Wednesday, Speaker Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice-Chairman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack released a joint statement expressing concern about the update of the Secret Service telephone system. to the “erasing” of records – a potential violation of federal law – and that “everything must be done to recover the lost data.”

“The US Secret Service system migration process continued on January 27, 2021, just three weeks after the Capitol attack, in which the Vice President of the United States, while under Secret Service protection, was a stone’s throw away. of a violent mafia hunt for him,” the lawmakers said.

“Four House committees had already requested this critical data from the Department of Homeland Security before the data was apparently lost.” they said. “In addition, the content retention process prior to this purge appears to have violated federal record retention requirements and may be a potential violation of the Federal Records Act.”

The missing texts could provide a more detailed roadmap for Trump’s actions and plans around Jan. 6.

They could also confirm or ignore the testimony of White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson to the committee, in which she said a senior Secret Service official told her on Jan. 6 that Trump was furious with the agent who led his security detail after he killed him. had been told he could not join his supporters on their march to the Capitol.

Hutchinson testified that the official — Tony Ornato, then temporarily serving as the White House deputy chief of staff — told her that Trump had also jumped at the wheel of the Suburban he was traveling in. Ornato has denied telling Hutchinson this, according to a Secret Service spokesman, and former Trump details chief Bobby Engel has claimed no such physical altercation took place.

The Secret Service said it submitted 10,569 pages of information to the commission on Tuesday in response to a subpoena last week, according to a copy of the letter the commission made public on Wednesday.

The Secret Service acknowledged that on June 11, 2021, Cuffari requested texts sent or received by 24 Secret Service personnel between December 7, 2020 and January 8, 2021, two days after the uprising.

Agency officials said they found one text message calling for help from the U.S. Capitol Police to Secret Service when Trump supporters searched the Capitol that day.

In the five-page letter, Ronald L. Rowe Jr., deputy director of the Secret Service, told the commission that in June 2021 the Inspector General’s Homeland Security Service had asked them for text messages sent by 24 officials around that time. were sent and received by the Secret Service and that they “are currently not aware” of lost texts. He wrote that officials are struggling to find out if that is true, are making “extensive efforts” to determine if the messages are lost gone and “if so, whether such texts can be recovered”.

Officials pull “all available metadata” to determine which text messages the 24 employees, who have not been publicly identified, sent on January 5 or 6, 2021, conducting “forensic examinations of all available devices” and interviewing them to see if the messages were stored somewhere, the Secret Service wouldn’t have searched.

However, the Secret Service’s letter states that it has disclosed “large amounts” of documents to the OIG’s office.

The Secret Service also set the timeline for turning off the phones and said its employees have been trained to keep records as required under the Federal Records Act.

Officials said the planning process for switching the phones began in the fall of 2020, and the chief information and chief operating officers decided in December to switch to Intune, a software management application for Microsoft’s mobile devices, the following month.

The agency said it instructed employees to save content on their phones and began the “migration process” two days later, on Jan. 27. The migration ended on April 1, 2021. But individual agents were allowed to decide which texts to keep, and the rest were wiped out.

The deleted texts raise serious concern that the agency was ignoring the basic record retention required under the Federal Records Act, and was doing so at the same time that congressional and executive branch investigators searched for those documents.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has testified before Congress on federal and presidential record keeping, said the Federal Records Act requires government officials to keep all relevant records, including email and text messages. .

He said the Secret Service had a duty to protect the text messages for historical reasons, but also because it is a law enforcement agency, in case they are needed for congressional or criminal investigations.

Even the accidental loss of information “still needs to be treated as a serious matter,” he said.

“These records are the nation’s story,” he said. “That’s the point of the Federal Records Act.”

The Secret Service’s claim that it can no longer retrieve the piles of text messages agents exchanged days before and on the day of one of the most horrifying attacks on democracy in American history has brought a legion of information technology gurus and amateur sleuths to action. turned on. Some have used social media to dispute the Secret Service’s claim that the texts are lost forever — and are busy postulating the possible ways to recover the lost texts.

Schwellenbach said Cuffari’s delay in reporting the issue necessarily reduces the chances of retrieving data that was not properly backed up and archived.

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