Bad Watchdog Episode 2: The Tip of the Iceberg

Jan 26, 2023

Government forces teargassed a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters gathered in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, in June 2020. Despite widespread condemnation across the political spectrum, Homeland Security watchdog Joseph Cuffari declined to investigate the incident. 

Investigative reporters Nick Schwellenbach and Adam Zagorin walk Maren through Cuffari’s baffling decisions not to investigate the violence in Lafayette Square, breaches in Secret Service COVID protocols, or migrant abuses by Customs and Border Protection.

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[Music plays.]

Host Maren Machles: Last time on Bad Watchdog.

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

Former Inspector General for the Department of Defense Gordon Heddell: Inspectors general fill a void that occurs when our system of checks and balances is not working.

Testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, before the January 6th Committee: 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.”

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.

Senior Investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) Nick Schwellenbach: Suddenly Cuffari’s office stopped answering questions.

[Music stops.]

Maren: Last episode you heard about the Department of Homeland Security’ s watchdog, Joseph Cuffari, and his decision to wait more than a year to notify Congress about the Secret Service deleting text messages from January 6th. And while that decision was both confusing and troubling, for me and my colleagues, it wasn’t entirely surprising.

[Music plays.]

Because it wasn’t the first time that we had actually heard about Cuffari shooting down staff proposals. Proposals that would hold agencies within the Department of Homeland Security accountable. It wasn’t even the first time that he and his inner circle avoided putting the Secret Service under a critical light.

To take us back to the beginning… [Music stops.] I flew out to DC to meet with the investigators who uncovered it all. Nick Schwellenbach…

[Maren: Hi, how are you doing?

Nick Schwellenbach: Hi, how are you doing? Good!]

Who you met in episode one…

[Maren: Nice to finally meet you!

Nick Schwellenbach: Yeah, in person. In the flesh.]

And Adam Zagorin.

Former POGO Senior Journalist Adam Zagorin: We’ve talked on the phone. It’s great to see you.

Nick Schwellenbach: Yeah, it’s been a while.

Maren: We’re all here meeting at the office to sit down so that they can both walk me through everything that they’ve uncovered over the last few years.

Adam Zagorin: So, what are we gonna do?

Maren: So first I feel like we should maybe talk about—

Nick Schwellenbach: Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?

[Maren laughs.]

Maren: Let me quickly do a proper introduction. So Nick is lovely. He’s kind of no-nonsense — even though we have debated about the most recent Star Wars trilogy — I do have some hot takes. Anyways, he’s been with POGO on and off for over a decade. He’s received several awards, and pretty much everyone that I’ve talked to for this podcast has noted how much they admire his work. He’s uncompromising when it comes to protecting his sources, as all investigative journalists should be.

Nick Schwellenbach: I don’t want to get into when I talked to people when...

Maren: Okay.

Maren: Adam is the other half of this dynamic duo.

Adam Zagorin: It went on and on, I mean if you got an edit like this, you would not be happy.

Maren: Yeah [laughs].

Maren (voiceover): When I was first introduced to him, I was told he once smoked cigars with a dictator…Nobody could quite remember who. Adam just sort of retired...I say “sort of” because there seemingly are constant new developments in this Cuffari saga and Adam keeps jumping at the chance to aid Nick in the investigation. He’s worked for POGO for 13 years and before that he was a Senior Correspondent for TIME magazine, he’s been a commentator on CNN, and Fox News, and CBS.

Maren (interview): Alright, well, so I think we should maybe start with, um, how you all started digging into Cuffari.

Nick Schwellenbach: Alright. I’ll take that one, at least initially.

[Music plays.]

Nick Schwellenbach: In the spring of 2021, thanks to congressional sources, I had a lot of extensive conversations with Office of Inspector General insiders at the Department of Homeland Security. I probably talked to a number of people collectively for eight, nine, 10 hours. And someone said, sort of offhand that Cuffari had killed off an effort to probe what had happened at Lafayette Square on June 1st, 2020.

ABC7 reporter: Just north of Lafayette Square, which is just north of the White House. So essentially these police you see right here and they’re advancing again. Now there’s just a lot of violence erupting. Ben, back up, back up. Tear gas everywhere. We’re gonna get off to the side here.

CNN anchor: Who can forget the video, police gassing and pushing away protestors who were demanding racial justice.

Nick Schwellenbach: Jaw dropped. It just seemed like such an obvious thing for an inspectors general office to do. And Lafayette Square was kind of such a big deal to people in the, in the DC area. [Music stops.] And it was a huge deal at the time, people across the political spectrum said as much. The way that day transpired, it looked like protestors were cleared potentially for the purpose of allowing President Trump to cross Lafayette Square over to St. John’s Church for a photo op.

[Music plays.]

Maren: In this episode, we’re going to take a look back at that historic and troubling day in June 2020, as well as the moments over the past few years, where Cuffari rejected proposals from his staff to investigate. We will examine whether Cuffari’s decisions may have been politically motivated and how they’ve had a lasting impact on the credibility of his watchdog office.

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.]

Audio from Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest: Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!

Maren: In the summer of 2020, protests were organized in cities across America in outrage over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.

Audio from BLM protest: Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot!

Maren: There have been so many Black people killed by the police, and this wasn’t the first time protesters took to the streets, or the first time Black Lives Matter protesters were met with violent tactics by law enforcement.

[Audio of tear gas and sound grenades going off at Lafayette Square BLM protest.]

Maren: But what was different that summer was the size and scope of government-sponsored violence. States across the country were deploying the National Guard. Protestors were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and more.

[Audio of a car passing by, ambient outdoor noise.]

Maren: Hi. It’s so nice to meet you.

Activist and organizer Radiya Buchanan: Hi. Nice to meet you.

Maren: I’m Maren.

Radiya Buchanan: I’m Radiya.

Maren: Nice to meet you.

Maren (voiceover): I’m meeting up with Radiya Buchanan in Lafayette Square. Radiya attended most of the protests that summer.

Radiya Buchanan: I haven’t been here in a really long time.

Maren: I would imagine. Yeah, when was the last time you’ve been, you were here?

Radiya Buchanan: Right here? [Maren: Yeah.] Probably that day.

Maren: Really?

Radiya Buchanan: Yeah, definitely that day.

Maren: Tell me like what your mindset was like, on that day and kind of in the days before.

Radiya Buchanan: It was just like a, an overwhelming feeling of like, why is there no accountability? Why do you get to do whatever you want to us? And no one says anything. And so it felt like the only thing that you could do was either like sit back. And suck it up and just deal with it internally, which I think a lot of people do on a day-to-day basis or just like go and just be seen. I think this was probably one of the first times in a really long time that something that was happening, and that happens a lot in the United States to Black people, was seen on a global scale.

[Music plays.]

Maren: We are sitting in front of, uh, St. John’s Church.

Radiya Buchanan: Mhm.

Maren: Did you know on that day that that was, that Trump was gonna be walking across?

Radiya Buchanan: No.

Maren: Let’s go back to June 1, 2020. Protesters were filling the streets that surrounded Lafayette Square, which happens to be just across the street from the White House.

[Audio of Lafayette Square BLM protest.]

At the time it wouldn’t be clear, but there were several law enforcement agencies watching the crowd: there was the National Guard, the U.S. Park Police, the DC Metropolitan Police Department, and… the Secret Service.

Radiya Buchanan: And so like from here—

Maren: 16th and H?

Maren: Radiya is showing me exactly where she was.

Radiya Buchanan: Yes. So from here all the way back, it was like a dense crowd. So you couldn’t even really see them unless you were up at the front. [Maren: Yeah. At the front of the…] And then there were officers lining the sides.

[Audio of Lafayette Square BLM protest.]

Maren: A lot of protestors had their phones out on that day, and the footage is striking, especially at the front of the crowd. There’s a line of police with shields, they appear to be with the Park Police and the Arlington County Police Department. Behind them more police, some of them appear to be with the military. There’s also a line of police on horseback. And you see some protestors are trying to de-escalate this growing tension that seemingly came out of nowhere. They’re kneeling, putting their hands up. At one point they start chanting, “You are the threat.”

Audio of Lafayette Square BLM protest: You are the threat! You are the threat!

Radiya Buchanan: I think we were saying, you know, like, “Say his name, Black Lives Mattered” or “No justice no piece,” all of the regular stuff, it was very peaceful. There was no—like I said, the night before there were a few kids like being agitators. There’s none of that happening.

Maren: Yeah.

Radiya Buchanan: At all. And then out of nowhere, you kind of see, cause we’re at, not at the front of the crowd, we’re like in the middle towards the back. You see people kind of like moving backwards. You couldn’t hear anything, like, so I know they say that the, the officers had given warnings, you have to go, or anything like that. Didn’t hear any of that. Now do the people at the front of the crowd hear that? I don’t know.

Maren: Yeah.

Radiya Buchanan: But here, in the middle. So I don’t know how many feet that is.

Maren: It’s kind of a block.

Radiya Buchanan: It’s like a block.

Maren: Yeah.

Radiya Buchanan: So a block away, you didn’t hear any of that. And then you started to hear bangs.

[Audio of Lafayette Square BLM protest, bangs and screams]

Radiya Buchanan: And like, so then people like got really scared and started like running backwards. You saw people with like their shirts and stuff over their faces because it was tear gas. 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.

Maren: The quick atmosphere change was very bizarre, and to be honest chilling to watch. To use Radiya’s words, it went from a peaceful protest to a war zone. It felt like the police violence used that day came out of nowhere. Afterwards, there was a lot of speculation that Trump and his inner circle may have had something to do with clearing the crowd so violently.

CNN reporter: During those protests that day, President Trump made a defiant declaration.

Former President Donald Trump in CNN news package: I am your president of law and order.

CNN reporter: Then he made his way across Lafayette Park.

Reporter: Is that your Bible?

President Trump: It’s a Bible.

CNN reporter: Trump held up that Bible at St. John’s Church. The U.S. Park Police was skewered, accused of using force so the president could stage a photo op.

Maren: Radiya was a part of a lawsuit seeking damages from the federal government because of the use of force on that day. The original complaint reads quote, “This case is about the President and Attorney General of the United States ordering the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators who were speaking out against discriminatory police brutality that’s targeted at Black people.”

Radiya Buchanan: You either become consumed by the systemic racism and like injustice that you face on a daily basis, or you have to… act like it doesn’t exist in order to survive. And so we don’t get to take a break from that. We still have to deal with the things that are unfair, on a daily basis, and the people responsible are not held accountable.

[Music plays.]

No one has had to like really pay for what they’ve done. In any way.

[Music stops.]

Maren: It’s hard to look at the brutal use of force that took place on that day and not think about President Trump’s own words during this time. His words about suppressing the movement.

Leaked audio of President Trump talking to state governors: You have to get much tougher. You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re gonna run over you. You’re gonna look like a buncha jerks. And it’s a movement that if you don’t put it down, it’ll get worse and worse.

Maren: And now, the president’s own security is squaring off with protestors.

As Nick said, earlier, it was a widespread sentiment across the political spectrum that the violence used against these protestors was deeply troubling. Like January 6th, this was a moment where we needed someone to investigate what happened. Was all of the use of force really necessary? Who ordered it? How did things get so excessive? This is exactly the type of incident where we need a watchdog. And I know that that’s the case because the events of that day were investigated by the Department of Interior’s watchdog, who oversees the U.S. Park Police. That review found that the Park Police had been planning to clear Lafayette Square before they learned the president would be there. But it also found they didn’t effectively communicate with the crowd — or with the Secret Service.

CNN anchor: A new report tonight about last year’s violent clash between police and protestors in Lafayette Square near the White House.

CNN reporter 1: The operational plan was to say three times over what is basically like a megaphone to the crowd, “Disperse, disperse, disperse.” [CNN reporter 2: Yeah.] The problem is that that megaphone wasn’t really appropriate for the crowd size.

Maren: Now, there are questions about the Interior’s report, but it does provide more clarity around what happened that day, and it makes recommendations for how the agency could do a better job in the future. And what about a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s watchdog, Joseph Cuffari? How would the Secret Service do better? [Music plays.] Well, we don’t know. There was no review.

Nick Schwellenbach: It was very clear that, you know, the career staff had proposed this review.

Maren: Nick mentioned one of the reasons Cuffari gave for shooting down this proposal was because the Secret Service could conduct an after-action report, so in other words examine itself.

Nick Schwellenbach: These insiders I talked to, as well as external experts said, this is exactly the kind of review that you want an independent watchdog to conduct.

[Music stops.]

It’s politically charged. It’s sensitive. Here we have the Secret Service, which is very close with the White House. And this matter led to a lot of criticism of the White House. So this is the kind of review that you usually don’t want an agency to do into itself.

Adam Zagorin: The role of the Secret Service in this matter is not like peripheral or incidental, or it can easily be covered by others or something else. Had the president not been there, it’s difficult to imagine that any of this would have, you know, happened in the way that it did. This is a case where the Secret Service and what was going on is really fundamental to the whole episode.

Maren: Yeah.

Adam Zagorin: So that is why Mr. Cuffari’s refusal to take up this matter struck Nick and myself as being, something that you, you couldn’t just say, “Oh, well.”

Maren: Yeah.

Adam Zagorin: You really had to say, “Why?”

[Music plays.]

Maren: This tip about Cuffari’s refusal to look more closely at the actions of the Secret Service at the Lafayette Square protest — well, there was no way for them to know it at the time, but this was the tip of the iceberg of what Nick and Adam would later uncover.

Nick Schwellenbach: This person then said, “Well, that’s not the only one where Cuffari inexplicably rejected his own career staff’s proposal to review the Secret Service, uh, in connection with a, you know, highly charged political matter involving Trump.

Maren: From a rejection to look at the Secret Service’s compliance with COVID protocols...

MSNBC reporter: More than 130 Secret Service officers have been either infected with COVID or they’re quarantining because of the exposure.

Maren: To his refusal to investigate whether the appointment of DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf was even legal…

CBS News anchor: Wolf held the role of acting secretary for 14 months, despite several lawsuits challenging the legality of his appointment.

Maren: To other decisions about investigations we will explore later on that are frankly, far more chilling.

[Music stops.]

Gordon Heddell: What you have to know about being an inspector general, how to perform your duties, understanding the concept of, of independence.

Maren: This is Gordon Heddell, again. Because of his time as the watchdog for the Department of Labor and Department of Defense, he knows firsthand about the importance of understanding independence as the inspector general.

Gordon Heddell: You have to understand what it means to be nonpolitical. The law says that inspectors general are selected on the, on the basis of being nonpartisan. If somehow you don’t understand that, you can get yourself into a great deal of trouble.

Maren: When there are questions about these high-profile incidents like January 6th and Lafayette Square, the choice to not investigate? Well, Gordon says that will create more problems and more questions around independence.

Gordon Heddell: There were allegations, there were questions about the Secret Service’s role, and this is where I do have an opinion, and that is, is that when those questions arise, there has to be a review, an investigation to determine whether or not everything was done properly and that the Secret Service performed their jobs properly.

Maren: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like the bottom line is that because there are questions about that day and what happened, there should have been a review.

Gordon Heddell: Exactly. Exactly. But then, but then Maren, when you put that together with all this other smoke about the Secret Service and the DHS inspector general, where the DHS inspector general did not follow through, you have to then wonder what’s the reasons for this?

Maren: I mean, here’s the thing. It did look like Cuffari was protecting Trump. But as you’ve heard Nick and Adam have been digging into Cuffari’s decisions since the spring of 2021, and the truth is, he continued to drag his feet on critical investigations even after Trump left office. Take for instance another use of force incident, but this time it’s under Biden. Back in September of 2021, Customs and Border Patrol agents used force on Haitian migrants near the border in Del Rio, Texas and photos from that incident went viral.

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

KHOU11 anchor: One agent was caught on camera swinging his horse strap at one of the migrants.

[Music plays.]

Maren: In these images, you see patrol agents on horseback, with these straps that look like whips, chasing Black migrants, grabbing their shirts, visibly yelling. It’s imagery that feels very reminiscent of slavery. These images hit me like a ton of bricks. There was widespread condemnation of this incident.

CBS News anchor: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized the Biden administration’s handling of the situation.

MSNBC reporter: This administration has been caught between its values and the practicalities on the ground when it comes to immigration. As for the agent on the horse, that is not something that I’ve ever encountered in my seven years of covering this agency, and I think that they definitely need to answer questions about what’s happening there.

Audio from White House footage. Question from reporter: You said on the campaign trail that you were gonna restore the moral standing of the U.S., that you were going to immediately end Trump’s assault on the dignity of immigrant communities. Given what we saw at the border this week, have you failed in that promise? And this is happening under your watch. Do you take responsibility for the chaos that’s unfolding?

President Biden: It’s outrageous. I promise you those people will pay. They will be an investigation underway now, and there will be consequences.

[Music stops.]

Director of The Constitution Project at POGO Sarah Turberville: I think that Del Rio incident is like a microcosm of how effective Border Patrol is at just waiting out a crisis and sweeping something under the rug.

Maren: Sarah Turberville is the Director of The Constitution Project here at POGO. That’s a team on our staff that advocates for constitutional rights when the government exercises power in the name of national security and domestic policing. So, not surprisingly, her team spends a lot of time on the Department of Homeland Security.

Sarah Turberville: About 15,000 Haitian migrants were gathered near or under this international bridge in, in Del Rio, in the crossing between, uh, the U.S. and Mexico. And these were folks that had been escaping horrible conditions in Haiti. Following, not long ago the assassination of their president. And then of course the conditions having deteriorated year after year following the devastating earthquake of 2010. But soon Border Patrol calls in the Texas Department of Public Safety to try to disperse people who had kind of crowded under the bridge and it was at that point that the rest of the world learned what was going on there.

[Audio of CBP agents inaudibly yelling at and chasing Haitian migrants on horseback in Del Rio, Texas.]

Sarah Turberville: Imagine what happens when cameras aren’t rolling. Cameras were rolling and this happened. It was to me very emblematic of the impunity. Of the many incidences of use of force, and assault, shootings, and vehicle chases and property damage that the Border Patrol has committed. Rarely do we find out if anyone’s even been investigated, let alone disciplined. There’s, you know, these photos that were splashed all over the world and you had the president of the United States saying people will immediately be held accountable. And that the, you know, with Secretary Mayorkas saying the same thing.

Maren: It wouldn’t be until almost a year later that we would receive a report of investigation from Customs and Border Protection’s own internal affairs department. The conclusion? While the agents’ behavior was found to be inappropriate, there was no evidence that the migrants were struck that day. But none of the migrants were interviewed for the investigation, only the agents involved. About two months after the photos from Del Rio surfaced, DHS announced Cuffari’s office would not investigate the officers’ use of force.

[Music plays.]

Exactly like the Secret Service’s involvement in Lafayette Square, this is yet again another example of a violent incident involving agencies under his jurisdiction, and yet again another investigation that this watchdog refused to pursue.

[Music stops.]

Maren: It kind of seems that this would be a really good opportunity for the Department of Homeland Security’s IG to step in and have like an in more independent look at what happened.

[Music plays.]

Sarah Turberville: The IG is the best suited to root out systemic problems, and there is no shortage of examples of abuses that warrant a thorough and systemic review. But he’s just utterly failing in this fundamental role as, you know, someone who’s supposed to provide an independent review of, of abuse.

[Music stops.]

Maren: For the next few episodes, we will be looking at that abuse that Sarah just mentioned, not just abuse of power but abuse of people. And take a closer look at Customs and Border Protection, how it’s the largest law enforcement agency in the country, and how it continues to go unchecked thanks to Cuffari.

[Music plays.]

NickSchwellenbach: What we heard is that DHS law enforcement employees who DHS had confirmed had abused their domestic partners. Yet continued to serve in their law enforcement roles with their government-issued guns and their badges.

Former CBP Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Internal Affairs James Wong: If you don’t present the facts, it gives this appearance of being on a coverup. So now you go to, what are you hiding?

Sarah Turberville: It’s a coverup. I think if, if members of the public sort of really understood the complicity of some of our leaders and giving cover to this kind of abuse and misconduct that they would, they’d be shocked and appalled.

That’s next time on Bad Watchdog.

[Music changes.]

Follow Bad Watchdog wherever you get your podcasts. 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

[Music stops.]