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DHS to pause wiping political appointees’ phones after Jan. 6 committee complains

Written by on August 6, 2022

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The Department of Homeland Security will review electronic retention policies, according to a memo obtained by ABC News Thursday, and will halt wiping political appointees’ phones until the review is complete.

The policy comes in the wake of a retention policy that caused the U.S. Secret Service to wipe text messages from Jan. 6 and surrounding days, losing all text messages from the days and drawing ire from the House Jan. 6 committee.

“Earlier this month, Secretary Mayorkas directed the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Office of the General Counsel to create and lead a Department-wide working group to conduct a 30-day review of the policies and practices for electronic message retention currently in effect throughout DHS and to recommend any necessary improvements,” the memo written by General Counsel Jonathan Meyer said.

“Such messages include, but are not limited to, email, social media messages, instant messages, and text messages. As technology continues to rapidly evolve, the working group will ensure DHS continues to comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and guidance so as to fully meet the expectations of Congress and our other oversight entities, other key stakeholders, and the American public,” the memo said.

The directive, sent to department heads, also said the agency will not wipe political appointees phones until the review is complete.

“Effective immediately and until such time as any additional technical controls recommended by the working group are implemented, DHS agencies and offices are directed to preserve either the actual mobile devices (and accompanying access information) or complete fully accessible backups of all device content for all members of the Senior Executive Service or equivalent and political appointees, whenever such an employee departs or would have their device replaced or wiped for any reason. Mobile devices include smart phones, tablets, and other devices with equivalent capabilities,” the memo read.

Component heads will have until Aug. 5 to identify who will be in charge for each review.

Top Democrats in Congress investigating the events of Jan. 6 continued to allege that the government’s federal watchdog for Homeland Security abandoned efforts to collect texts and phone records from that day.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Bennie Thompson, who chair the House Oversight and Homeland Security committees, on Monday renewed calls for Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari to step away from the watchdog’s investigation.

“We recently called for you to step aside from this matter and for a new IG to be appointed in light of revelations that you had failed to keep Congress informed of your inability to obtain key information from the Secret Service,” the chairs said in a letter to Cuffari. “Removing yourself from this investigation is even more urgent today.”

“These documents also indicate that your office may have taken steps to cover up the extent of missing records,” the chairs added.

Last month, Cuffari told Congress that the U.S. Secret Service had deleted text messages from Jan. 5 and 6 and that record reviews by DHS attorneys were causing months-long delays.

A spokesperson for the Secret Service acknowledged in a recent statement that some phone data from January 2021 was lost as the result of a pre-planned data transfer, noting that the transfer was underway when the IG office made the request in February 2021.

The committees also said that former DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli was using his personal phone, potentially for official government businesses, and Congress was not notified by the inspector general.

A report from the government accountability group Project on Government Oversight found that messages from Cuccinelli and then-DHS Secretary Chad Wolf have also gone missing.

ABC News’ Quinn Owen contributed to this report.

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