Records agency to DHS: Look into your watchdog’s use of text messages 

NARA asked DHS to look into whether Signal messages were managed in accordance with the Federal Records Act.

NARA asked DHS to look into whether Signal messages were managed in accordance with the Federal Records Act. Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This comes after a hearing two weeks ago that raised concerns among some lawmakers about how the IG uses and retains records of electronic messages. 

The federal records agency is asking the Homeland Security Department to look into its embattled inspector general’s text messaging practices, which have landed the IG in hot water with Democratic lawmakers and prompted calls for his resignation. 

During a hearing on June 6, DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari testified about his use of the messaging app Signal and said that it is his “normal practice to delete text messages” from his government-issued phone and he wasn’t sure if they were stored anywhere after. Cuffari said he didn’t believe he was in violation of the Federal Records Act. Yet, House Democrats didn’t agree and on June 12, they asked the National Archives and Records Administration to investigate the matter. 

Laurence Brewer, NARA’s chief records officer, wrote to Eric Hysen, DHS’ chief information officer, on June 15, tasking the department with various reviews. 

Cuffari said he and a select group of top DHS officials were directed by the department to use Signal in late 2020 and early 2021 following a data breach, and he only used it to make a call, for which there was no record. 

In a court filing in March, DHS officials said that Signal messages from former top DHS officials in the Trump administration (Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli) “were captured and preserved from this time period,” Brewer wrote. “However, the capture and preservation of messages beyond these senior officials is unknown,” Brewer added. Therefore, “NARA requests that DHS look into this matter and confirm that all electronic messages sent or received by DHS officials using Signal have been managed in accordance with the Federal Records Act.”

Brewer also asked that DHS provide “NARA with the required report documenting IG Cuffari’s practices with respect to the management of electronic messages, and in particular all messages that meet the definition of a federal record.”  

“The department’s review should include, but not be limited to, how DHS ensures that text messages that are federal records are properly retained; any training DHS provides to staff members, including senior officials, to ensure that text messages are captured as federal records; and any policies and procedures that are issued on how text messages are identified and preserved if determined to be federal records,” Brewer added. 

After the hearing, the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight released a report that said, “according to two sources, Cuffari informed personnel that he had deleted texts from his government phone as they were attempting to collect copies of records responsive to POGO’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.” Also, according to POGO’s sources, “Cuffari’s deletion of texts was not reported to [NARA], as legally required, despite a written recommendation by a federal attorney to report the matter. Finally, the sources said, an internal plan within the Office of Inspector General to investigate his deletion of texts was not carried out.” POGO has made many allegations about wrongdoing by Cuffari and his top staff over the past year and has been calling for his removal.

Brewer wrote that in August 2022, DHS started preserving cell phones and/or fully accessible backups of devices given to senior officials, and since November 2022, it has required all political appointees and employees to document their record retention efforts before and in conjunction with a factory reset of the phone.

“If the department determines that federal records were deleted without proper disposition authority, your final report must include a complete description of the records affected, a statement of the exact circumstances surrounding the deletion of messages, a statement of the safeguards established to prevent further loss of documentation, and details of all agency actions taken to salvage, retrieve, or reconstruct the record,” Brewer said. 

When asked about the letter, a DHS spokesperson told Government Executive on Tuesday: “DHS follows governmentwide requirements for records management, including the Federal Records Act. For additional information about the OIG and the Inspector General's testimony, we refer to the OIG.”

NARA said that DHS has not responded yet, but has 30 days to do so.

The DHS IG office didn’t respond for comment on the letter.