Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Missing: More January 6 Texts Sought by Congress

Once again, DHS’s watchdog failed to sound the alarm — this time about missing texts of top Homeland honchos
(Photos: Customs and Border Protection; Getty Images; Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

It’s déjà vu all over again. In defiance of an explicit congressional request and the law, text messages to and from three top Trump-era officials at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from early January 2021 are missing, according to an internal agency record obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and congressional sources.

In late February 2022, the department’s management division informed DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari’s office in writing that text messages sent or received by then-Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, then-Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, and Acting Under Secretary for Management Randolph D. “Tex” Alles cannot be found. The records show Cuffari’s office was told that government phones used by those top DHS leaders might also be inaccessible.

Cuffari’s office has kept Congress in the dark about the lost DHS leadership texts for more than five months. Four congressional committees had long before asked for all January 6-related federal records from relevant agencies, including DHS, in a letter dated January 16, 2021, ten days after the attack on the Capitol.

It’s unclear if Cuffari has told DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, even though there is a legal mandate requiring his office to do so “whenever the Inspector General becomes aware of particularly serious or flagrant problems, abuses, or deficiencies relating to the administration of programs and operations.” The inspector general's office and DHS did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Cuffari’s office has kept Congress in the dark about the lost DHS leadership texts for more than five months.

The new revelations of missing text messages to and from the senior-most DHS leaders point to a systemic failure by the department beyond the Secret Service to adhere to federal records law — a problem that manyagencies have. Wolf said he was “unaware” that any of his texts are missing. “I have no clue” about this, he said. “All my phone and text messages should be available.” Cuccinelli did not respond to a request for comment.

More missing texts also means there’s an even larger potential gap in the January 6 accountability record than previously known.

While Wolf and Cuccinelli have denounced the violence that day, governmentandnewsaccounts show they were aware of President Donald Trump’s behind-the-scenes efforts to cast doubt on and overturn the 2020 presidential election by unsuccessfully trying to have DHS seize voting machines in the weeks prior to January 6. The then-president’s aggressive public campaign calling on supporters to “Stop the Steal” — coupled with what Wolf and Cuccinelli privately knew Trump wanted DHS to do — could have made them more sensitive to the possibility that Congress was at risk because of its certification of the election that day.

Cuffari’s office received the written notice of the texts’ unavailability in response to a specific request he made for them as part of his own probe into DHS’s law enforcement preparation and response before and on January 6.

More missing texts means there’s an even larger potential gap in the January 6 accountability record than previously known.

The DHS management division correspondence offers no explanation of why the three officials’ texts are unavailable to Cuffari, nor any prospect that the missing messages and possibly lost government phones will ever be recovered. It’s also unclear if Cuffari has also sought texts on personal phones pertaining to government business when Cuccinelli and Wolf served as DHS officials. These texts, if any exist, are also federal records.

A semiannual report by Cuffari’s office covering October 2021 through March 2022 — a span encompassing the period when his office was told of various missing texts — does not disclose that any department records have gone missing. A section of the report entitled “Summary of Attempts to Restrict or Delay Access to Information” only says that there has been a significant delay in accessing Secret Service records. There is no mention of the missing DHS leadership texts, or that the erasure of Secret Service texts had already been known to Cuffari for months.

By law, inspectors general are required to disclose in their semiannual report when an agency they oversee “has resisted or objected to oversight activities of the Office or restricted or significantly delayed access to information.”

“These Omissions Left Congress In The Dark”

The February 2022 time frame when Cuffari found out about the missing DHS leadership texts is significant because it came around the same time the Secret Service had again informed his office that text messages sent or received by 24 Secret Service employees had been “erased” in what the Secret Service says was part of a preplanned “data migration” project.

As POGO has previously reported, after Cuffari was informed in February of the missing Secret Service texts, he did not inform Congress for nearly five months. Earlier this week, the chairs of the House Government Oversight Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee released a stinging letter that catalogued Cuffari’s repeated failures to inform Congress about the lost Secret Service texts. The House committee chairs also revealed that Cuffari’s office had known as early as December that the Secret Service texts were purged, and not simply “unavailable,” as the agency had earlier said.

Their letter questioned his “professional judgment and capacity to effectively fulfill his duties” in his ongoing investigation of the missing text mystery. The letter called on a government council of inspectors general to name another watchdog to oversee the Secret Service probe currently being directed by Cuffari. On Wednesday, Bloombergreported that the council’s executive director said it had no power to reassign the investigation.

“These omissions left Congress in the dark about key developments in this investigation and may have cost investigators precious time to capture relevant evidence,” wrote Representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS), respectively the chairs of the House oversight and homeland security committees. “Inspector General Cuffari’s actions in this matter, which follow other troubling reports about his conduct as Inspector General, cast serious doubt on his independence and his ability to effectively conduct such an important investigation.”

These new criticisms further compromise Cuffari’s already troubled tenure as a Trump-appointed inspector general facing scrutiny into his alleged blunders and improprieties, including an investigation for retaliating against a former senior official in his office.

In a letter earlier this year, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian called on the White House to remove Cuffari from his job, citing his failure for over a year to report to Congress and DHS leadership frequent instances of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct within the agency.

One document involved the sweeping results of an internal DHS survey from 2018. Among other findings, the survey showed that more than 10,000 employees of the agency’s law enforcement divisions said they had experienced sexual harassment or misconduct on the job. Cuffari sat on this finding without publishing it for more than a year. It was not until POGO revealed the survey that the findings became public.

DHS: Asleep at the Switch on January 6?

If the missing DHS leadership texts are ever found, they could provide new information about the actions and knowledge of the agency’s highest officials on and before January 6. Given that DHS was a frontline agency on that day because of the Secret Service’s role protecting Vice President Mike Pence, and that DHS’s intelligence office failed to issue specific warnings about the impending violence that would engulf the Capitol, such information could be of more than passing interest to Congress and the public.

The missing DHS leadership texts also could shed light on how much Trump’s documented attempts to enlist DHS in casting doubt on the 2020 election results continued into January 2021. According to a deposition transcript, a Justice Department official said that on the night of January 3, Trump wanted Cuccinelli involved in examining a debunked allegation of election fraud — a request that the official passed along to Cuccinelli.

The New York Times has also reported that Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani called Cuccinelli in December 2020 to see if DHS could seize voting machines. Trump and one of his White House officials made similar requests of Wolf, as reported by ABC News and the Washington Post. (Politico has reported that Cuccinelli in April 2020 had pushed DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis to examine potential voter fraud from mail-in voting — a dubious use of the agency.) Wolf said that their description of his and other DHS officials refusing to take action in response to these requests is accurate.

Even if the texts don’t shed light on any nefarious efforts by Trump or others, they could illuminate how aware DHS leadership was of threats to the certification of the election in early January 2021. Although there are heightened national security risks even during normal presidential transitions when the role of DHS is especially important, Wolf left the U.S. to go to Cyprus, Bahrain, and Qatar on official government business a few days before January 6 until January 8. Wolf told POGO, “We had work to do and international agreements to sign that furthered the mission of DHS.”

“A Chilling Effect”

DHS leadership text messages may offer insight into why DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis failedto issuewarnings that the Capitol would be attacked. For example, the Wall Street Journal has found that on January 5, the intelligence division of DHS sent a report to law enforcement around the nation saying there was “nothing significant to report.” And Politico has noted that more than 30 minutes after angry rioters, many of them armed, first breached barriers around the Capitol on January 6, DHS was still reporting internally and to the U.S. military that there were “no major incidents of illegal activity.”

Experts and administration insiders have said Wolf’s actions months before January 6 made DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis far less likely to issue intelligence assessments that might engender criticism from Congress or upset the White House and Trump personally.

Wolf removed the official in charge of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis after that office had compiled social media dossiers on journalists covering protests in Portland and elsewhere in the summer of 2020. The official, Brian Murphy, has said that Wolf removed him in retaliation for raising concerns inside DHS about politicized intelligence designed to please Trump. Murphy has said both Wolf and Cuccinelli sought to tamp down warnings that might anger Trump, such as intelligence about potential Russian election interference and the domestic terrorism threat from white supremacists. Wolf and Cuccinelli have denied the claims in previous statements to POGO.

Notwithstanding their denials, a DHS Office of Inspector General report from earlier this year found that after Wolf removed Murphy, employees in the office he headed became “hesitant or fearful to report information related to January 6 events.” One intelligence employee said there was a “chilling effect.”

Citing an Office of Intelligence and Analysis official, the inspector general report states that “prior leadership” — a reference to Murphy — “pushed collectors to report on anything related to violence, including potential threats or tactics and techniques used by individuals that may be associated with violence.” The report went on to find that, “in contrast, the new leadership encouraged collectors to issue intelligence reports on threats only when they were confident the threats were real.”

“I removed Brian Murphy simply because he was incompetent, a poor performer and a bad employee,” Wolf told POGO. “It had nothing to do with January 6, the 2020 election or anything like that. And it had no chilling effect.”

(A separate inspector general report also found that Wolf’s involvement in an intelligence assessment about Russian attempts to influence the 2020 presidential election “potentially furthered the perception of politicization surrounding the product.”)

Why Contemporaneous Records Matter

A week after January 6 and two days after resigning, Wolf, who was once reportedly Trump’s favorite cabinet member, said the president bore some responsibility for the attack on the Capitol. “He’s the President. What he says matters,” Wolf told CNN.

Despite this criticism, it appears Wolf and Trump’s links haven't been completely severed. The House January 6 Committee recently disclosed that Wolf is employed by the America First Policy Institute, which received $1 million from Trump’s Save America political action committee.

These financial ties and the possible fear of closing off employment opportunities in a future administration make contemporaneous records like texts potentially more reliable than after-the-fact testimony that may be tilted to protect a relationship. The House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack sought to interview Wolf and Cuccinelli last fall. Cuccinelli voluntarily participated; it is unclear if the committee spoke to Wolf. Wolf offered a no comment in response to a question about testifying before the committee. He would not say whether Trump's funding of his employer could bias his testimony regarding Trump and January 6.

Besides the missing texts of Wolf and Cuccinelli, messages to and from “Tex” Alles, who remains DHS’s Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Management, are not available either. After serving as Trump’s first Secret Service director, he began in his current role in July 2019. Among his management responsibilities, Alles oversees DHS’s information technology efforts — like the data migration at the Secret Service in January 2021 that led to the apparent loss of Secret Service text messages, although it is unclear if Alles was actually involved in that specific effort.

If Alles’ own texts are now missing, as DHS told its inspector general’s office in February, it would seem to raise obvious questions about what he knows about their loss, or the erasure of Secret Service messages. He may know nothing.

“Tex is 100% on Team Trump,” someone who worked closely with Alles at DHS told POGO. “As a former head of the Secret Service, he would know all about how they operated in that regard,” said the source, referring to their data systems, and who requested they not be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.