Bad Watchdog Season 2 launches June 20.

Bad Watchdog Episode 1: The Missing Text Messages

How did a peaceful transfer of power turn into the first breach of the U.S. Capitol in over two centuries? We may never have all the answers, thanks to the DHS watchdog’s failure to alert Congress for months about deleted Secret Service text messages. What’s more, Cuffari refused a request to help recover the text messages and halted an internal Secret Service investigation into their deletion.

Government watchdogs, called inspectors general, are supposed to hold powerful actors accountable. When they don’t do their jobs, the impacts can be disastrous. Investigators at the Project On Government Oversight examine Cuffari’s initial response to the missing Secret Service text messages and explore his abrupt change of course after a former White House aide gave shocking testimony about then-President Trump’s actions on January 6th.

If you enjoy Bad Watchdog, consider signing up for emails from the Project On Government Oversight to learn more about POGO’s mission and work. 

Show Notes

  • Nick Schwellenbach - Guest
  • Liz Hempowicz - Guest
  • Gordon Heddell - Guest

Audio from January 6th insurrection: We are on your side, don’t make us go against you.

Host Maren Machles: If you live in the United States of America, you’ve almost certainly heard about or watched the clips of what happened on January 6th, 2021.

Audio from January 6th insurrection: These are our streets. What would later be called the “insurrection.”

CNN news anchor: I wanna warn our viewers, what we’re about to see this video is very hard to watch.

CNN reporter: This was the horrifying scene on Wednesday inside an entrance on the west side of the Capitol. [Recording of crowd shouting] At one point, a rioter tries to pry the gas mask off an officer’s face.

MSNBC anchor: We are seeing the buildup of the last five years spill out onto [Anchor 2: Yup.] the Capitol steps.

Audio from January 6th insurrection: We love Trump! We love Trump! We love Trump!

[Music plays.]

Maren: The minutes of that day would be picked apart and prodded at by the public, and journalists, and Congress — I mean, at this point it’s been more than two years. And yet we still don’t fully understand how a peaceful transfer of power turned into the first breach of the U.S. Capitol in over two centuries. And there are still some key unanswered questions... like what was the president’s plan? Did he really try to join the march to the Capital? And how much did security officials know before that day?

[Music stops.]

There is an agency that was very close to former president Donald Trump on that day — the Secret Service. Secret Service agents were both at the Capitol with Vice President Mike Pence and with Trump on that day. Records from the agency could clear up whether there was knowledge of a potential for violence that day, and what, if anything, was done to mitigate it.

[Music plays.]

The problem is text messages among the agents and senior officials in the agency from January 6th are missing.

The Secret Service wiped their cell phones.

CBS reporter: The January 6th Committee spotlight tonight is on the Secret Service and how potentially pivotal text messages between agents on January 5th and 6th, the day of the attack, disappeared. The communications could be key.

ABC reporter 1: The agency said that these texts in question were deleted as part of a device replacement program, but the inspector general says that the deletions occurred only after his office requested that the messages were sent, both a day before and on January 6th, which was Insurrection Day. So who is telling the truth here?

ABC reporter 2: And that’s, I think, the question that is on everybody’’s mind.

[Music stops.]

Maren: So, who is this inspector general and how is he connected to the Secret Service and January 6th? He’s a watchdog inside the federal government, charged with keeping the Department of Homeland Security accountable. He’s probably one of the most powerful guys you’ve never heard of.

But what happens when this watchdog isn’t doing his job?

[Music plays.]

Senior Investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Nick Schwellenbach: This is the guy running the watchdog shop. But he doesn’t wanna raise red flags when clearly they’re warranted.

Former Border Patrol Agent Jenn Budd: I remember standing in our living room in my uniform and I’m trying to tell her, “I have to get out of there. They’re gonna kill me.” I didn’t even know how to blow the whistle back then. I said “I don’t even believe in what we do anymore.”

Director of The Constitution Project at POGO Sarah Turberville: It’s a coverup. I mean, Joseph Cuffari is giving cover to abusive agents within the ranks.

Nick Schwellenbach: He’s the watchdog who didn’t bark over and over.

Former Inspector General for the Department of Defense Gordon Heddell: There’s enough smoke here to know that there’s a fire burning somewhere.

Maren: This is a podcast about finding the truth and holding people accountable, which is essentially, and not coincidentally, the work of an inspector general.

I’m Maren Machles, and from the Project On Government Oversight, this is Bad Watchdog.[Music stops.]

We’re going to circle back to January 6th in a little bit, but before we do, I want to explain what an inspector general is. Because I think it’s really important to understand.

Most big cabinet agencies have this watchdog office — the Department of Justice, of Defense, of Labor.

But for all the power that they hold, these watchdogs are some of the least-known people in the government. You may not be familiar with our work here at the Project On Government Oversight, or POGO, as we call ourselves. But being that these watchdogs provide government oversight and we literally have the words “government oversight” in our name, you could guess that we’re pretty big fans of inspectors general.

Gordon Heddell: Okay. I, I think we’re in business. I’m going to begin recording right now. Okay?

Maren: Alright.

Gordon Heddell: Okay, it’s recording.

Maren: Gordon Heddell is incredibly respected within this community. He’s served under both Democratic and Republican presidents. And we’ll be coming back to Gordon a lot throughout the series, because of his expertise.

Gordon Heddell: I mean, inspectors general is one of the most important jobs, positions in our government. Because it protects the taxpayer. It protects the voter, it provides truth. It protects our democracy.

Maren: How, how can the average person kind of understand what an IG is supposed to do and who do they even report to?

Gordon Heddell: IGs play a critical role in our democracy by exposing government waste, fraud, and abuse, and seeking to make the government more effective, efficient, and honest. In the large federal agencies, the IG is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness, and inform Congress about problems in the administration of government programs and services. Today, inspectors general fill a void that occurs when our system of checks and balances is not working.

Maren: My background is in investigative journalism, so when I came across the researcher job at POGO, I jumped at the opportunity. I thought, “Hey, this is right up my alley — I get to investigate the federal government for abuse of power and corruption and expose systemic cracks.” I’d be able to hold the bad guys accountable.

But, to be completely honest, at the time, I didn’t fully realize how crucial inspectors general are, and that they already exist within the federal government to shed light on these cracks in the system.

POGO Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs Liz Hempowicz: Creating the inspector general system was a really, was a rather dramatic change to the internal oversight structure. Um, but frankly I think it was a stroke of genius.

Maren: Liz Hempowicz leads the policy initiative here at POGO. If you couldn’t already tell, Liz is very passionate about accountability and oversight and inspectors general.

Liz Hempowicz: We’ve got inspectors general that are, you know, across the board generally resulting in huge savings to the agencies even when not all of their recommendations are enacted. Um, and, and yeah, like I said, stroke of genius. So the role of inspectors general actually goes back I think to 1978 by Congress when they passed the Inspector General Act. And what they did was create a system of overseers who work within, but independent of, federal agencies.

Maren: According to Liz, a good watchdog is independent, thorough, and in search of the truth. They should be willing to take a hard look at the agency that houses them, even when it’s uncomfortable, and especially in the face of political pressure. That’s why their relationship with Congress is so important. They are required to report to Congress. This creates independence, and it creates a check on these federal agencies that might not otherwise exist.

Liz Hempowicz: They believed, and this is one of my favorite quotes, that agencies had “clearly failed to make sufficient and effective efforts to prevent and detect fraud, abuse, waste, and mismanagement in federal programs and expenditures.” Because there’s a “natural tendency for an agency administrator to be protective of the programs that he administers.” Like, duh.

Maren: Just so we’re clear, this is a big job in general. But particularly, the Department of Homeland Security or DHS is the third-largest cabinet department in the country.

We’ve talked about inspectors general as kind of this uniform role. But, by department, the responsibilities can change as far as like the amount of work that you have. Like the amount of agencies that you’re overseeing, the, the size of those agencies. Can you talk a little bit about, about that? 

Liz Hempowicz: Yeah, absolutely. The way that the Department of Defense, or the Department of Homeland Security interacts with the public. The work of these agencies um, has an incredible, um, an incredible opportunity to impact, for good or bad, constitutional rights, um, human rights. The work of those inspectors general should acknowledge that. It shouldn’t just be about cost savings at those agencies, particularly at the Department of Homeland Security.

Maren: And trust me, we are going to get into some of these constitutional and human rights violations that some of these agencies have been involved in. But for now, let’s focus on one of these agencies, which happens to be the Secret Service. And that brings us back to January 6th and what the Secret Service did or did not know on that day.

Audio from January 6th insurrection, officer 1: Be advised. There’s probably about 300, uh, Proud Boys. They’re marching eastbound…

[Insurrectionists: Who’se streets? Our streets. Who’se streets? Our streets. Who’se streets? Our streets.]

[Inaudible radio chatter.] Officer 2: …Breached the line. We need backup.

We’re gonna try and get compliance, but this is now effectively a riot.

Officer 3: It’s been [indecipherable] hours, declaring it a riot.

Maren: Inside the Capitol on January 6th, police are trying to maintain the crowd and stop them from getting onto the Senate floor. Secret Service agents are with Vice President Mike Pence and they’re trying to figure out how to get him out of there.

Radio chatter between U.S. Secret Service agents: If we lose, uh, anymore time, we may lose the ability to, to leave. So if we’re going to leave, we need to do it now.

They gained access to the second floor.

January 6th Select Committee interview with U.S. Secret Service member: The members of the VP detail at this time were starting to fear for their own lives. Um, there were a lot of, there was a lot of yelling. Um, it was disturbing. I don’t like talking about it, but, um, that there were calls to, um, say goodbye to family members, so on so forth.

Maren: At the same time, a few miles away, Secret Service agents on President Trump’s detail are fighting for his safety as well, except in this case, allegedly, it’s to protect Trump from himself.

Testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, before the January 6th Committee: The president just said, he’s marching to the Capitol. And Mr. Cipollone said something to the effect of, “Please make sure we don’t go up to the Capital, Cassidy. Keep in touch with me. We’re going to get charged with every crime imaginable if we make that movement happen.”

Maren: This is Cassidy Hutchinson, a former top aide to the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. She made waves when she testified in front of the January 6th Committee. When she speaks you can tell she is careful and deliberate, but her testimony was shocking.

Testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson: Bobby had relayed to him, “‘We’re going back to the West Wing.”‘ [She takes a breath.] The president had a very strong, a very angry response to that. Um, Tony described him as being irate. The president said something to the effect of “I’m the f’ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now.” The president reached up towards the front of the vehicle to grab at the steering wheel. Mr. Engel grabbed his arm, said, “Sir, you need to take your hand off the steering wheel. We’re going back to the West Wing. We’re not going to the Capitol.” Mr. Trump then used his free hand to lunge towards Bobby Engel. And Mr., when Mr. Ornato had recounted this story to me, he had motioned towards his clavicles.

[Music plays.]

Maren: I mean, when I was watching her testimony my jaw dropped. Did she just say what I think she said? The president was grabbing the wheel and maybe even assaulting the U.S. Secret Service agents trying to protect him? It sounded so wild to me, I couldn’t believe it. I and the rest of the world wanted to know: Did this happen? And if so, is there proof?

[Music stops.]

Representative Elaine Luria during a CBS news interview: Communications within the Secret Service, who was protecting the president and the vice president at the critical time on January 6th, when the violence broke out that’s of utmost interest to the committee.

Maren: So this is the moment where the Department of Homeland Security’s IG steps into the spotlight. His name is Joseph Cuffari [Music plays.] and on July 13, 2022, he issues a shocking letter. He’s notifying Congress that the Secret Service deleted their text messages.

CNBC anchor: Last week, Homeland Security’s inspector general notified the committee that the Secret Service erased employees’ text messages.

CBS news reporter: The communications could be key to advancing testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson.

Maren: IG Cuffari was almost seen as a hero in this moment... [Music stops.] My colleague’s here at POGO, Nick Schwellenbach and Adam Zagorin, have investigated and broken several stories about Cuffari over the last two years. You’ll meet Adam later, but for now, here’s Nick.

Nick Schwellenbach: One of the big flash points here has been the former Trump aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s public testimony on June 28th, where she alleged that Trump tried to take the wheel of the steering wheel of the presidential SUV and turn it around towards the Capitol to join his supporters as they descended upon Congress’s certification of the presidential election that day. So when Cuffari sent that July 13th letter, the next day, it was reported for the first time by the press. And it led to a lot of laudatory coverage of, of Cuffari.

Maren: The letter from the watchdog reads, quote, “I am writing to offer a briefing regarding ongoing records access issues we have been experiencing with the Department of Homeland Security.” He goes on, saying the U.S. Secret Service “erased the text messages after OIG requested records of electronic communication” and that quote, “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.”

Cuffari was calling out the Secret Service for deleting records after they had been requested — which, I’m no law expert, but that seems like it should be illegal. And he was calling out DHS for stonewalling his investigators. Honestly, bravo, IG Cuffari. Let the truth prevail!

CNN anchor: The Department of Homeland Security inspector general has directed the Secret Service to stop its internal investigations into what happened to text messages. The inspector general feels that this effort could interfere with the inspector general’s own investigation into what happened to that agency’s text messages.

Maren: But, it turns out… [Music plays.] Cuffari knew way more than he was letting on at the time.

Nick Schwellenbach: He had a bunch of briefings with Congress and congressional staff. That all changed when POGO and the Washington Post first asked critical questions about the timing of that July 13th letter. Suddenly Cuffari’s office stopped answering questions.

CNN anchor: New questions about the missing Secret Service texts from around January 6th, according to multiple sources, the embattled Homeland Security inspector general first learned of those missing messages more than a year before he then alerted the January 6th committee.

Maren: Cuffari had known that these messages were missing for more than a year! POGO and other news outlets obtained a copy of the original letter to Congress, which was initially drafted back in April. [Music stops.] As a side note, Nick will refer to this as the April 1st letter or the April 1st language, but to keep this simple, all you need to remember is that this is an earlier version of the letter that set off what would become the Secret Service text message scandal everyone is talking about. This version of the letter to Congress showed that career staff had known for quite a while that those text messages had been deleted — and that they’d wanted to notify Congress back, well, in April.

Nick Schwellenbach: They’d been trying to get those text messages since the spring of 2021.

Maren: This letter went through IG’s office of counsel, office of investigations, and office of inspections and evaluations. All three offices signed off on this language.

Nick Schwellenbach: So there’’s widespread agreement by the rank and file within the IG’s office that they needed to tell Congress about the Secret Services’ stonewalling and deletion of texts…and it got killed off. [Music plays.] Why on July 13th is Cuffari now telling Congress? Instead of doing the right thing in a timely way, on the merits of the issue…he killed it… It isn’’t until there’’s this bombshell testimony by Cassidy Hutchinson that he was like, “Oh, well, you know, maybe we should tell Congress.”

[Music stops.]

Maren: What was even more frustrating for OIG staff? It turns out, not all parts of DHS are equipped to extract and recover text messages. But Cuffari’s office is. However, instead of helping, OIG leadership halted the effort to salvage digital communications back in February of 2022.

Nick Schwellenbach: There were different parts of DHS that were coming to the inspectors general’s office, like the Federal Protective Service, and they said, “Hey, we don’t have the technical expertise to extract these January 6th-related texts. Can we get your help?” Because the inspector’s general office had these digital forensics experts in house.

Maren: The staff within Cuffari’s office wanted to help. At one point, the staff was even on the verge of extracting these text messages.

[Music plays.]

Nick Schwellenbach: This is in late February. The leadership of the inspector’s general office said, “No, stop. We don’’t want to help them…even if it leads to a delay in getting these text messages.” Very weird.

Maren: Why would he do that? Why would he tell them —

Nick Schwellenbach: There’s no ex—we have no explanation as of right now.

Maren: Wow.

Nick Schwellenbach: Led to a lot of people scratching their heads inside of the watchdog office.

Maren: The rank and file were on the precipice of extracting these crucial text messages, but were told to stop. Why wouldn’t Cuffari want to uncover these text messages and help Congress gain a clearer picture of what happened on January 6th? It just doesn’t make sense.

Nick Schwellenbach: Another level to this is the delayed notification of Congress also meant that Congress lost many months. Had they learned about those missing texts, say many months earlier, or even a month earlier, or weeks earlier, could that have made the difference in terms of eventually recovering these texts? There’s a sort of a gap in the accountability record relating to January 6th. Will we be able to fill that gap? It’s not clear. He seems to have flouted this Inspector General Act legal requirement that he keep Congress informed when there are access to records issues. So there are questions about his understanding of his role as a watchdog and what are the legal requirements, you know, he needs to fulfill.

[Music stops.]

Maren: Nick wasn’t the only one noticing how Cuffari’s actions were completely ignoring his legal obligation to report to Congress. In fact, his investigations made it in front of some of the members of Congress Cuffari should have been reporting to.

Nick Schwellenbach: There’s been a lot of outrage. Representative Bennie Thompson and Representative Carolyn Maloney, they’ve been outraged by this. They have sent a flurry of letters to Cuffari demanding answers, asking, ”Why was there delayed notification to Congress? Why wasn’t the April 1st language that was approved by the watchdog office’s lawyers to send to Congress? Why was that never sent in a timely way? Why wasn’t there a directive not to help DHS components recover text messages and Cuffari has refused to send these officials to Congress. And says, “I can’t answer any of these questions. We have an ongoing criminal probe and I’m not gonna tell you anything.”

Maren: We did reach out to Cuffari’s office to request an interview and received no response. And while we can’t get inside his head, throughout this series we are going to share some of the explanations he’s given to Nick and Adam, as well as Congress.

I can tell you that when it comes to the missing text messages from January 6th, no one has received a clear explanation.

[Music plays.]

That’s the thing about watchdogs. When they’re good at their jobs, they protect the truth and protect our democracy. But what if they’re bad?

What happens if they hear about corruption or misconduct and instead of investigating and fact-finding, they look the other way? What happens when it’s not clear whether they’re loyal to the truth or to the agencies and leaders they’re charged with keeping accountable?

In this podcast, we’re going to delve into the story of one such watchdog — Joseph Cuffari — and the story of my colleagues at POGO who have uncovered how the decisions he’s made in that role have had a massive impact across the agency — and across the country.

[Music stops.]

Next time, we learn how Nick and Adam started looking into Cuffari, and we uncover how the decisions he made around January 6th aren’t his most harmful, they’re just the most recent. We’ examine a pattern in which, time after time, the DHS watchdog refused to do his job.

[Music plays.]

Nick Schwellenbach: I must have talked to people for…at least a total of eight or 10 hours before one of these individuals brought up the fact that Cuffari rejected a proposal to review the use of force at Lafayette Square by the Secret Service. Jaw dropped. It just seemed like such an obvious thing for an inspector’s general office to do.

Audio from Lafayette Square, Black Lives Matter chants: Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot!

Activist and organizer Radiya Buchanan: At this point it’s kind of like you just hear bang after bang. People are like crying, throwing up. It looks crazy. We’re in a war zone.

MSNBC anchor: We’re seeing an increasingly heartbreaking situation unfold there in Del Rio. The next image might be tough to look at.

Sarah Turberville: I think the Del Rio incident is like a microcosm of how effective Border Patrol is at just waiting out a crisis. Sort of sweeping something under the rug.

Maren: That’s next time on Bad Watchdog.

Follow and subscribe to Bad Watchdog wherever you get your podcasts.

[Music changes.]

Bad Watchdog is a production of Investigations and Research at the Project On Government Oversight. It’s written, produced, and hosted by me, Maren Machles, and based on investigations by Nick Schwellenbach and Adam Zagorin. Additional research by Julienne McClure. Edited by Julia Delacroix and Brandon Brockmyer. Fact checking by Amaya Phillips and Neil Gordon. This episode was mixed by Natalie Jablonski. Our theme music was written and recorded by Will Wrigley. POGO’s director of Investigations and Research is Brandon Brockmyer. POGO’s editorial director is Julia Delacroix. Find out more about our work to investigate and improve the federal government at www.pogo.org.

[Music stops.]