U.S. Secret Service members erased Jan. 5-6 texts after messages were requested, says watchdog – CBS News

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By Nicole Sganga
/ CBS News
Members of the U.S. Secret Service erased text messages from Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, 2021, shortly after the Department of Homeland Security inspector general requested them as part of an investigation into the agency’s response to the assault on the U.S. Capitol, according to a letter written by the inspector general to congressional leaders and obtained by CBS News.
In a letter sent to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees, DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari wrote that although his office had been notified that texts were erased as part of a device replacement program, the wiping of the devices occurred after a request for electronic communications.
“First, the Department notified us that many U.S. Secret Service text messages from January 5 and 6, 2021, were erased as part of a device-replacement program. The USSS erased those text messages after OIG requested records of electronic communications from the USSS, as part of our evaluation of events at the Capitol on January 6,” Cuffari wrote in the letter.
“Second, DHS personnel have repeatedly told OIG inspectors that they were not permitted to provide records directly to OIG and that such records had to first undergo review by DHS attorneys,” the letter continued. “This review led to weeks-long delays in OIG obtaining records and created confusion over whether all records had been produced.”
U.S. Secret Service spokesperson Steve Kopek called “the insinuation that the Secret Service maliciously deleted text messages” following the DHS Inspector General’s request “false,” in a statement issued late Thursday, adding that the agency has been “fully cooperating with the OIG in every respect – whether it be interviews, documents, emails, or texts.”
“First, in January 2021, before any inspection was opened by OIG on this subject, USSS began to reset its mobile phones to factory settings as part of a pre-planned, three-month system migration.  In that process, data resident on some phones was lost,” the statement continued. 
“DHS OIG requested electronic communications for the first time on Feb. 26, 2021, after the migration was well under way. The Secret Service notified DHS OIG of the loss of certain phones’ data, but confirmed to OIG that none of the texts it was seeking had been lost in the migration.”
According to Kopek, the inspector general’s insistence that its employees were not granted “appropriate and timely access to materials due to attorney review,” has been “repeatedly and publicly debunked” in previous reports to Congress. “It is unclear why OIG is raising this issue again,” he added. 
But the agency did not dispute the inspector general’s assertion that some of the messages from USSS agents had been erased during the migration. 
The agency said that the Secret Service turned over 786,176 unredacted emails, and 7,678 Microsoft Teams chat messages to the DHS inspector general, all referencing conversations and operational details related to Jan. 6 and preparations leading up to it. Those messages include text messages from the U.S. Capitol Police to the chief of the Secret Service Uniformed Division requesting emergency assistance at the Capitol.   
The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol declined to comment. The DHS inspector general’s office did not immediately respond to a request by CBS News. 
“We need to get to the bottom of whether the Secret Service destroyed federal records or the Department of Homeland Security obstructed oversight,” said Senator Gary Peters, Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “The DHS Inspector General needs these records to do its independent oversight and the public deserves to have a full picture of what occurred on January 6th. I will be learning more from the DHS Inspector General about these concerning allegations.”
Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio noted that he is “deeply concerned” by the letter, in a statement to CBS News. “It is essential that the Department be transparent with its inspector general, Congress, and the American public,” Portman added.
Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, who chairs both the House Homeland Security and Jan. 6 committees, said the former “will be briefed about this extraordinarily troubling destruction of records and respond accordingly,” in a statement to CBS News.
News of the agency’s alleged efforts to wipe communications comes just one week after U.S. Secret Service Director James Murray announced his retirement from his post. The 32-year veteran of the federal government plans to depart at the end of July. 
The letter does not indicate whether DHS’ top watchdog believes electronic communications were deleted intentionally in an effort to evade transparency, but adds to the uncertainty surrounding the Secret Service’s response to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Last month, White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson described former President Trump’s desire to go to the Capitol with his supporters while Congress was in a joint session counting the electoral ballots, during a hearing of the Jan. 6 Committee.
Hutchinson testified that she had spoken with White House deputy chief of staff for operations Tony Ornato in a room with Robert Engel, the Secret Service special agent in charge on Jan. 6. According to Hutchinson, during the meeting, Ornato conveyed that the president became “irate” in his vehicle when he was told that he could not go to the Capitol. He said something to the effect of “I’m the f***ing president, take me up to the Capitol now,” Hutchinson said. The Intercept was first to report the letter from the DHS inspector general.
When informed that he had to return to the West Wing, Trump reached up to the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel, prompting Engel to grab his arm, Hutchinson said she was told by Ornato.
But a source close to the Secret Service confirmed to CBS News that Engel and the driver are prepared to testify under oath that neither man was physically attacked or assaulted by Trump and that the former president never lunged for the steering wheel of the vehicle. 
After Hutchinson’s testimony, Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the agency “has been cooperating” with the committee and would “continue to do so, including by responding on the record…regarding the new allegations” that surfaced in the hearing.
CBS News reporter covering homeland security and justice.
First published on July 14, 2022 / 7:12 PM
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