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Exclusive: DHS inspector general knew of missing Secret Service texts months earlier than previously known

By Whitney Wild, Zachary Cohen, Jeremy Herb and Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

The embattled inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security first learned of missing Secret Service text messages in May 2021 — months earlier than previously known and more than a year before he alerted the House select committee investigating January 6, 2021, that potentially crucial information may have been erased, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

Earlier this month, Secret Service officials told congressional committees that DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, the department’s independent watchdog, was aware that texts had been erased in December 2021. But sources tell CNN, the Secret Service had notified Cuffari’s office of missing text messages in May 2021, seven months earlier.

The Secret Service now says the texts were lost as a result of a previously scheduled data migration of its agents’ cell phones that began on January 27, 2021, exactly three weeks after the attack on the US Capitol. After the data migration was completed, in May 2021 the Secret Service told Cuffari’s office that they tried to contact a cellular provider to retrieve the texts when they realized they were lost, a source told CNN.

The source added that key Secret Service personnel didn’t realize data was permanently lost until after the data migration was completed, and erroneously believed the data was backed up. In July 2021, inspector general investigators told DHS they were no longer seeking Secret Service text messages, according to two sources. Cuffari’s office then restarted its probe in December 2021.

These new details come as Cuffari faces mounting pressure from key Democrats to hand off his investigation into the missing messages. They also come amid revelations that text messages for the two top DHS officials under former President Donald Trump — acting Secretary Chad Wolf and acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli — are missing for a key period leading up to the January 6 attack.

The Washington Post first reported the missing Wolf and Cuccinelli texts, which were lost in a “reset” of their government phones when they left their jobs in January 2021 in preparation for the new Biden administration, according to the Post.

Wolf said in a tweet Thursday that he “complied with all data retention laws and returned all my equipment fully loaded to the Department. Full stop. DHS has all my texts, emails, phone logs, schedules, etc. Any issues with missing data needs to be addressed to DHS. To imply otherwise is lazy reporting.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the missing messages from the lead-up to January 6. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney in a statement Saturday accused Cuffari of “flagrantly mishandling” the investigation into the missing text messages and called for him to “immediately step away” from the inquiry.

The missing messages exploded into public view earlier this month when Cuffari sent a letter to congressional committees saying that Secret Service texts had been erased, kicking off the frantic set of events that now has sparked a criminal investigation and pointed demands for answers from Congress.

Cuffari’s letter came after Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified to the January 6 committee about an angry confrontation between Trump and his Secret Service detail on January 6, 2021.

The committee and Cuffari are both interested in the texts because they could shed light on the Secret Service’s response to January 6.

Conflicting requests for information

Amid the heightened scrutiny, the Secret Service has curtailed its cooperation with the January 6 committee related to the missing texts, two sources tell CNN. Secret Service lawyers, along with DHS attorneys, are working to determine how to respond to and prioritize three conflicting requests for information about the missing records from the House select committee, the National Archives and the DHS inspector general.

The Service told the committee last week by phone about the need to pause cooperation prior to the panel’s July 21 primetime hearing, one of the sources said. The committee had issued a subpoena on July 15 to the Service for text messages and other records surrounding January 6.

On July 20, Cuffari’s office, which operates independently of DHS, told the Service to stop investigating the missing records, saying that it could interfere with the inspector general’s own probe, which it wrote was an “ongoing criminal investigation.”

In addition to the January 6 committee’s subpoena, the National Archives separately demanded that the Secret Service turn over relevant records and explain what might have happened to any deleted text messages.

Sources familiar with the situation said they were not sure how long it will take for Secret Service lawyers to determine whether to share records with the committee — and whether this would be resolved within a few days or stretch on for weeks.

A source tells CNN the Secret Service is continuing to give records from older requests to the Committee but acknowledged the agency has stopped any new investigative work to find the content of text messages that were lost.

In a statement to CNN, a Secret Service spokesperson said the agency “will continue our unwavering cooperation with the Select Committee and other inquiries.”

Reps. Zoe Lofgren of California and Elaine Luria of Virginia, who serve on the January 6 committee, have both said publicly the Secret Service handed over documents this week. And the committee’s chairman, Democratic Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, said Thursday that the panel received “several hundred thousand” exhibits from the Secret Service two days ago. Thompson said the panel is still reviewing the material and doesn’t know if it contains any new text messages.

When Cuffari met with the committee two weeks ago, Thompson said, he did not tell the committee that the potential deletion of Secret Service text messages from January 5 and 6, 2021, was under criminal investigation.

Thompson said he is still waiting to see how the criminal investigation impacts what information the committee can receive, but he does not believe the criminal investigation is affecting the committee’s investigation at this point.

“My understanding of the process is that if you’re involved in a criminal thing, that certain information that you’re not able to share,” Thompson said. “As to where the breaks are with respect to the criminal investigation, I guess we’ll just have to see at some point.”

Neither DHS nor the DHS Inspector General’s Office responded to a request for comment.

Congressional calls for recusal

The potential impasse between the Secret Service and the January 6 committee comes after Thompson called for Cuffari to recuse himself from the probe into the possible deletion of text messages.

Thompson and Maloney sent a letter to Cuffari on Tuesday saying his failure to inform Congress that the Secret Service wasn’t providing records “cast serious doubt on his independence and his ability to effectively conduct such an important investigation.”

Asked Thursday if Cuffari was misleading the committee, Thompson said, “It appears that the IG is potentially at issue with the conduct of his investigation.”

In a sign of the communication breakdown between congressional Democrats and Cuffari, the House Homeland Security Committee, which Thompson also chairs, was never informed by the inspector general that he was conducting a criminal investigation into the Secret Service text messages, according to a source familiar with the matter.

The missing messages exploded into public view this month when the inspector general revealed the issue in a letter to Congress. The letter came after Trump White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified to the committee about an angry confrontation Trump and his Secret Service detail on January 6.

Timeline takes shape

The issue of the potential missing text messages dates to January 2021, when the Secret Service began its previously planned phone data migration.

On January 16, 2021, before the data migration occurred, the chairs of four House committees sent a letter to DHS and other relevant agencies instructing them to preserve records related to January 6. While Secret Service is part of DHS, it remains unclear whether the agency received the guidance, which did not specifically reference them.

A source familiar with the investigation told CNN the Secret Service spent roughly eight hours last week searching for the notice, but never found it.

Nine days after the letter was sent, the Secret Service sent a reminder to employees that a data migration would wipe employees’ phones. The January 25, 2021, notice to employees made clear that employees were responsible for saving records.

The Secret Service began the data migration two days later, on January 27.

A source told CNN the Secret Service realized too late that the data was permanently deleted. The agency attempted to retrieve lost text messages from its cellphone provider, but it was unable to do so, the source said.

In June 2021, Cuffari requested records and texts from the 24 Secret Service employees involved with relevant actions on January 6. CNN has previously reported that the heads of Trump and Pence’s security details are among the 24 individuals.

But then in July 2021, a deputy inspector general told the Department of Homeland Security the office was no longer seeking the text messages from the Secret Service, according to two sources.

Sources told CNN the Secret Service believed the issue had concluded at that point. But the inspector general reopened his inquiry into the text messages in December 2021, one source said.

Skepticism rising

While the Democratic committee chairs have questioned whether Cuffari, who was appointed by Trump in 2019, could lead the Secret Service investigation, House lawmakers on the select committee have also raised suspicions over how the Secret Service might have allowed for messages to be deleted after January 6 — noting that multiple congressional committee had requested agency records before a phone migration led to their possible deletion.

“Count me a skeptic,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat on the panel, on CBS’ “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on Monday. Raskin said that he does not believe “for one minute” that the Secret Service cannot find the texts the agents made on January 6.

CNN reported last week that the Secret Service had identified 10 individuals with metadata showing text messages were sent or received around January 6, and the agency was trying to determine whether the content contained relevant information that should have been preserved.

The inspector general’s letter last week notifying the Secret Service of the potential criminal investigation halted those efforts.

The Secret Service suggested in its statement acknowledging the letter that it may not be able to comply with both the inspector general’s directive and the committee’s subpoena. The agency said that it would “conduct a thorough legal review to ensure we are fully cooperative with all oversight efforts and that they do not conflict with each other.”

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