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Draft Shows Watchdog Took Months to Report Missing Secret Service Texts

WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog took months to alert Congress to missing Secret Service text messages around the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol even after lawyers had approved a draft notification, leaving the information out of a key report and eventually releasing only a milder version, newly released documents show.

The draft alert, obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, is the latest evidence to raise questions about the Office of Inspector General’s handling of the missing texts, and is sure to anger House Democrats, some of whom have accused the inspector general of a cover-up as they investigate the attack.

The approved notification is scathing. Congress was to be alerted that the Secret Service had deleted texts related to the investigation into the attack, delayed answering investigators and unnecessarily redacted documents.

But even though lawyers at the inspector general’s office approved the draft notification on April 1, the agency, which is assigned to watch over the Secret Service, waited until July 13 to raise the alarm.

Joseph V. Cuffari, the agency’s inspector general, also did not include the alert in a June semiannual report even though that report must disclose when an agency “has resisted or objected to oversight activities” or “restricted or significantly delayed access to information,” according to a report from the Project on Government Oversight on the draft alert.

The group said the language never made it into the agency’s semiannual review after it was sent to an office run by the inspector general’s chief of staff, Kristen Fredricks.

The inspector general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The notification also contains new details about how the Secret Service resisted scrutiny into its actions around the Jan. 6 attack.

The Secret Service had blamed a phone system update for losing key data from Jan. 5 and 6, 2021. But the “Service Service has not explained why it did not preserve the texts prior to migration,” the draft notification stated.

The Secret Service has since said that the project was underway before it received notice from the inspector general to preserve its data, and that it did not “maliciously” delete text messages.

On Wednesday, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee asked the head of the Secret Service and the secretary of homeland security for details about the systems migration.

It is unclear what the missing text messages say or how many are missing. In general, the agency does not want its agents using the text function on their phones. But the agency’s resistance in cooperating with the inspector general’s investigation has raised questions about what it might be withholding.

Top Democrats have been pushing for weeks for answers from the inspector general’s office, including demands that Ms. Fredricks and another staff member testify before Congress about the matter.

Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the Oversight Committee, and Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, have asked Mr. Cuffari to step aside from the investigation into the missing texts.

Mr. Cuffari eventually informed Congress that messages from Jan. 5 and 6 had been erased, suggesting that the deletion occurred as part of a device replacement program. He has said those whose messages were missing included agents who were part of former President Donald J. Trump’s security detail.

The inspector general also directed the Secret Service to halt its internal search for purged texts sent by agents around the time of Jan. 6 so that it would not “interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation.”

The agency has turned over the personal cellphone numbers of agents as part of that investigation, according to a person familiar with the matter. This drew outrage from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which said the personal numbers should not have been released without the consent of the agents.

But Ms. Maloney and Mr. Thompson, who also leads the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, said they have lost faith in Mr. Cuffari, whose office they said “may have taken steps to cover up the extent of missing records, raising further concerns about your ability to independently and effectively perform your duties as inspector general.”

The lawmakers cited reporting from CNN that the inspector general learned in May 2021 that the Secret Service was missing critical text messages.

The lawmakers also stated that the committees had learned that Mr. Cuffari’s office was notified in February that text messages from Chad Wolf and Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the top two political officials at the Department of Homeland Security on Jan. 6, 2021, could not be retrieved. They added that the inspector general was also aware that Mr. Cuccinelli was using his personal phone and also failed to collect messages from that device.

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