The phones of several top Trump-era Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were deactivated when they left their positions and the data contained on them likely wiped, a court filing released late last week shows.
The revelation came in a public records dispute between ICE and watchdog group American Oversight, which has sought emails and text messages from former acting ICE directors Thomas Homan, Matthew Albence and Ronald Vitiello in a controversial immigration-related case. It follows recent controversies over wiped government phones and erased text messages, including the potential loss of information relevant to investigations into the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
“We cannot stand by as agency after agency admits that it destroys public records,” said Heather Sawyer, executive director at American Oversight, in a statement. “Text messages often contain crucial information on what federal employees are doing and why they are doing it. The obligation to retain these records is not optional — it is the law.”
In the Friday filing, ICE Chief Technology Officer Richard Clark said the agency couldn’t provide information sought by American Oversight, attested that the phones for most of the officials named in the lawsuit had been deactivated and noted that it indicated the mobile phone data has been wiped clean. American Oversight contends that many of the devices were wiped after the organization requested texts messages from the officials in 2019.
Under Trump-era rules, ICE instructed employees to erase data from their agency-issued mobile phones when they returned their devices or left the agency, according to the court filing.
That guidance, issued in November 2017, along with a subsequent 2018 memo, dictated that employees are responsible for wiping their phones and saving separate records if official business was conducted on the phone.
As CNN reported earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security said it would immediately stop wiping mobile devices of high-level officials and political appointees without backing them up, launching a 30-day review of policies and practices for retaining text messages and other electronic messages.
The review followed weeks of heavy criticism over lost text messages at the Secret Service and revelations that the phones of top former DHS officials Ken Cuccinelli and Chad Wolf were wiped after they left office.
It’s unclear how the DHS review impacts the phone policy at ICE, which is part of the department. CNN has reached out to ICE and DHS.
In a separate case brought by American Oversight, it was discovered that the Defense Department wiped the phones of top departing Defense and Army officials at the end of the Trump administration. That meant any texts from a number of key witnesses to events surrounding January 6, 2021, were deleted.
The ICE filing released Friday is part of an American Oversight and ACLU of Massachusetts lawsuit seeking records regarding the federal criminal prosecution of Judge Shelley M. Richmond Joseph, including the emails and text messages of senior agency officials.
The Massachusetts state judge and a court officer were charged in connection with a criminal defendant’s exit through a rear door of a courthouse in April 2018, while an ICE agent waited at another entrance.