The acting inspector general shared information about the review in response to a letter from a top senator expressing concerns about handling of messages related to the Capitol insurrection.
The Pentagon’s watchdog is reviewing the Defense Department’s records management policies in light of the news that text messages from key officials in the lead-up to the Capitol insurrection were wiped.
Following the news that text messages from President Trump’s top Defense officials before the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 were missing, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Senate majority whip and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on August 3 asked the acting Defense Department inspector general to look into what happened. This came after the similar news that messages from top Homeland Security officials and Secret Service agents were also missing.
“In the coming weeks, we will issue a management advisory on the DoD’s use of mobile applications, including instant messaging applications that we believe will be relevant to the concerns you raised in your letter,” wrote Sean O’Donnell, acting Defense IG, in a letter to Durbin on Tuesday that the senator made public Wednesday evening. “This advisory will notify DoD officials responsible for approving the use of mobile applications of concerns we identified during our ongoing audit of Defense Digital Service support of DoD programs and operations.”
The audit was started in August 2021 and “based on concerns identified during the audit, the [Defense IG office] expanded the review beyond the [digital service] to determine whether the misuse of approved unmanaged and unapproved applications for official business on DoD mobile devices is a DoD-wide concern,” said a footnote in the letter.
Also, the IG office is planning on conducting an audit to see if the Defense Department’s management and retention of electronic records follow the Office of Management and Budget and National Archives and Records Administration’s requirements. As part of this audit, the watchdog “will consider reviewing” the Defense Department’s actions to preserve texts sent on department-issued phones when Defense officials leave their positions, which would include the process in place presently and on Jan. 6, 2021, wrote O’Donnell.
Finally, the Defense IG is coordinating with the department’s office of general counsel and chief information officer on their assessment of the department’s policies and procedures in compliance with the Federal Records Act, which Defense Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks ordered in a memo on August 3.
“We will review any recommendations to the DoD that might result from this assessment,” wrote O’Donnell. “We will also continue considering other oversight work to address the DoD’s retention of records.”
Hicks asked for the CIO and general counsel offices to report back to her within 30 days with any recommendations from the assessment. Government Executive asked the Defense Department about this and officials acknowledged they received the request, but were unable to provide a comment by the time of this article’s publication.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats tweeted that the acting IG’s letter “is a good first step, but OIG must also commit to reviewing DoD’s preservation of texts by departing DoD officials, including those in office on 1/6.”
In response to an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit initiated by the nonprofit American Oversight, the Defense Department and Army admitted to wiping the phones of top departing officials; this was made public in August.
A joint status report filed in March said that “DoD and Army conveyed to [the] plaintiff that when an employee separates from DoD or Army he or she turns in the government-issued phone, and the phone is wiped. For those custodians no longer with the agency, the text messages were not preserved and therefore could not be searched, although it is possible that particular text messages could have been saved into other records systems such as email.” Then for those still at the agency, “the agencies have initiated a search for text messages responsive to the FOIA requests.”
Following this revelation Durbin said, “the disappearance of this critical information could jeopardize efforts to learn the full truth about January 6,” Additionally, “I don’t know whether the failure to preserve these critical government texts from January 6 is the result of bad faith, stunning incompetence, or outdated records management policies, but we must get to the bottom of it.”
When asked if it has any comment on the letter beyond what was shared, the Defense IG office confirmed that the letter was sent and said its practice is to not comment on ongoing projects.