When one of the most sophisticated law-enforcement agencies in the world just loses its agents’ communications records, that’s pretty fishy. When it says it can’t recover them, that’s even fishier. And when those wiped records happen to be text message exchanges during one of the most dangerous moments in American history, well, then something really smells.
That’s what happened when the Secret Service apparently deleted text messages from Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, 2021 — the day before and the day of the attack on the US Capitol that sought to overturn the 2020 election. The messages were erased after investigators looking into the agency’s handling of the insurrection requested them, but the Secret Service maintains that they were lost during a “pre-planned, three-month long system migration,” where their phones were being reset.
Investigators want to see the messages because the Secret Service has become a key subject in events leading up to the attack. The texts could shed more light on former president Donald Trump’s alleged intent to go to the Capitol with the mob to obstruct the proceeding that certified the 2020 election. They could show what Trump was doing as the attack unfolded. And they could also help confirm whether Trump knew that some of his supporters in the crowd were armed and proceeded to send them to the Capitol anyway.
It’s bad enough that the agency deleted the texts. But the story gets worse: The Secret Service falls under the Department of Homeland Security, and that department’s chief watchdog, who has been tasked with investigating the agency’s response to Jan. 6, allegedly torpedoed investigators’ efforts to retrieve the missing texts. Why would the principal investigator of that matter scuttle plans to get access to texts that would very likely help him better understand the Secret Service’s actions that day?
That’s a pretty big red flag. And so it’s no surprise that the watchdog, Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, has drawn criticism from lawmakers who are worried that he is undermining the investigation. It’s a reasonable concern, and it’s why the investigation into the Secret Service’s missing texts should be taken up directly by the Department of Justice.
It’s clear that Cuffari, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump, is not fit to lead this probe himself, and not just because he appears to have curtailed an effort to retrieve the texts. He also has a history of flouting ethics rules and misleading federal investigators. According to a 2013 report, for example, when he worked at the Department of Justice, Cuffari broke the rules when he failed to inform his supervisors about testimony he gave in a lawsuit filed by a federal prisoner. Investigators later accused him of not giving a truthful explanation as to why he did not inform his supervisors.
In addition to misleading investigators, Cuffari was also accused of violating ethics rules, including referring law firms where his close friends worked to that prisoner, and using his government email address to lobby for a position as an inspector general.
There’s also his record as the chief watchdog of the Department of Homeland Security, one of the largest and most sprawling federal agencies. Time after time, Cuffari has shown little appetite to investigate the conduct of fellow political appointees under Trump. He refused to interrogate the Secret Service’s handling of the George Floyd protests in 2020, for example, and declined to investigate Border Patrol’s use of unnecessary force against Haitian migrants in Texas. And the number of annual audits, inspections, and evaluations that the inspector general’s office has published have dropped significantly since Cuffari’s tenure began.
In short, Cuffari is not doing his job, even outside the most recent investigation of the Secret Service. And given what is publicly known about his mishandling of the probe into the missing texts — he knew, for example, about the deleted texts for over a year before he notified the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack; he undermined efforts to retrieve those messages; and he did not pressure the agency to explain why they failed to preserve the records — there is virtually no way he can reassure the public, or even fellow investigators, that he is the right person to lead this critical investigation.
When President Biden came into office, in order to boost confidence in government oversight mechanisms, he promised to keep inspectors general appointed by his predecessors — a welcome step after Trump fired a number of inspectors general within the span of just a few months. But while Biden’s intentions were good, he should be willing to make exceptions for Trump-appointed watchdogs who simply fail to do their jobs, and the president would be completely justified in concluding Cuffari isn’t fit to continue in his role.
In the meantime, as the various investigations into the insurrection continue, the Department of Justice must ensure a fair and impartial probe into what members of the Secret Service knew or did on Jan. 6. The public has a right to know what the Secret Service is hiding, and it now falls on the DOJ to find out.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.