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Watchdog Informs Secret Service of Criminal Inquiry Into Missing Texts

WASHINGTON — The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security ordered the Secret Service to halt its internal search for deleted texts sent by agents around the time of Jan. 6 so it “will not interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation” , according to a letter reviewed by The New York Times.

“To ensure the integrity of our investigation, the USSS may not undertake any further investigative activities related to the collection and preservation of the evidence referenced above,” Homeland Security Department Deputy Inspector General Gladys Ayala wrote to James M. Murray, the director of the Secret Service. “This includes immediately refraining from interviewing potential witnesses, collecting devices, or taking any other action that would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation.”

The mention of a possible criminal investigation into the deleted texts of Secret Service personnel sought by Congress and the Inspector General suggested the growing seriousness of the investigation into the service’s processing of data from around the time of the attack on the Capitol.

Not only can the Inspector General’s Office initiate criminal charges, but it must refer the case to the Department of Justice if it discovers crime through an investigation. Anthony Guglielmi, a Secret Service spokesman, confirmed in an interview on Thursday that the Inspector General had escalated his investigation to assess possible crime. The news of the letter referring to the criminal investigation was previously reported by CNN.

The letter was sent to the Secret Service on Wednesday evening. It came after the agency acknowledged earlier this week that the Inspector General and Congress were unlikely to recover the deleted phone data.

Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, who spent months reviewing the Secret Service’s actions on Jan. 6, last week first raised the issue of the missing texts with the selected House committee investigating the attack on investigated the Capitol. The commission then issued a subpoena to the records and a post-action report that the Secret Service later admitted had not acted.

In its response to the congressional subpoena, the Secret Service sent a letter to the committee earlier this week acknowledging that it was able to text the inspector general only once after the watchdog requested phone records from the Inspector General in June. two dozen Secret Service employees from December 7, 2020 to January 8, 2021.

The officials identified by the Inspector General were “primarily people who were operationally involved as of Jan. 6,” including Mr. Murray, the agency’s director, and members of former President Donald J. Trump’s defense department, such as Robert Mr. Trump’s senior agent Engel, said a government official familiar with the investigation.

Anthony M. Ornato, a White House deputy chief of staff under Mr. Trump who had previously been in charge of Mr. Trump’s protective detail, was not one of the 24 officials. The details of who belonged to those 24 were not previously reported.

The only text exchange the Secret Service turned over to the Inspector General was between Thomas Sullivan, the head of the Secret Service’s uniformed division, and Steven A. Sund, then the Capitol’s chief of police, according to the letter from the Secret Service to Congress.

It’s not clear what prompted the Inspector General to request the phone records of the 24 Secret Service officials. The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security declined to comment.

After handing over thousands of documents — but not the deleted phone records — to the House Committee on Tuesday, the Secret Service said it would continue forensic investigation of the text messages.

But in the letter from the Inspector General, Mrs. Ayala made it clear that the Secret Service should stop the search so as not to disrupt an “ongoing criminal investigation”. The Inspector General also instructed the agency to summarize the progress of the internal investigation and hand over any findings by Monday.

The Secret Service was assessing whether following the Inspector General’s directions and halting its internal review of phone records would violate the House selection committee subpoena or a request from the National Archives and Records. Administration, said a government official. The archives, which are responsible for preserving all data produced by a presidential administration, asked the Secret Service on Tuesday to investigate how it deleted the messages.

“We have notified the Jan. 6 select committee of the Inspector General’s request,” Mr Guglielmi said in a statement, “and will conduct a thorough legal review to ensure that we are fully cooperating with all oversight efforts. and that they do not conflict with each other.”

The Secret Service has said the text messages were removed as a result of an update to phones used by agency personnel. Employees were first notified of the upcoming update in December and again two days before the texts were removed on January 27. But Congress also notified the Homeland Security Department, the Secret Service’s parent agency, on Jan. 16. According to a person familiar with the House committee’s investigation, records were kept related to actions taken by one of its agencies during the Capitol riots have been undertaken.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Chair of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and an expert on presidential record keeping, said the nature of events around Jan. 6 requires the Secret Service to relinquish its traditional stance to protect its operations from scrutiny. He said the agency should answer questions about what happened as fully as possible.

“I think Jan 6 is a national tragedy that requires transparency from every agency,” Mr Turley said, adding that the records should be kept but Secret Service officials should come out about what they know. “The Secret Service has traditionally been one of the most opaque and obstructive agencies with regard to outside investigations.”

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