Mueller Team’s Wiped Phones and the Accountability Crisis in Government

October 6, 2020 Updated: October 6, 2020

News Analysis

Word has come out about dozens of conveniently wiped cellphones belonging to U.S. government officials who investigated the false theory that President Donald Trump and his campaign colluded with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The phones, used by agents on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, might have contained revealing evidence about official misconduct or even crimes.

The fact of the wipings wasn’t unearthed by law enforcement or an official investigative body; it came as part of a private lawsuit filed by the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch. There’s no indication that anybody else cared to get to the bottom of the missing evidence, which was blamed on a variety of excuses such as government agents entering incorrect passwords too many times, causing the phones to delete their content.

Among the general public, the convenient disappearance of information doesn’t pass the smell test. One could reasonably theorize that those whose work phones were wiped preferred taking a PR hit for that, rather than having anyone actually examine what secrets the phones held.

If history is a guide, they’re correct to believe they’ll face little repercussion for allegedly improperly destroying data and evidence. There’s been little to no accountability in past high-profile cases of curiously lost or missing government records. And the phenomenon isn’t confined to one party.

Here are some high-profile examples that are sure to pluck the outrage nerve among Americans.

Missing Documents

In 2014, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Raymond Maxwell, who worked under President Barack Obama, gave me a shocking account of government officials “sorting” Benghazi documents in the basement of the State Department. Maxwell alleged that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s confidants, including her chief of staff Cheryl Mills, were part of the operation to “separate” damaging material before anything was turned over to the Accountability Review Board investigating security lapses surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

No law enforcement body has interviewed Maxwell or checked out his claims to this day.

It wasn’t the first time that Mills, who declined to comment on Maxwell’s account, was named in a document-disappearing operation.

Mills was a deputy White House counsel to President Bill Clinton when Sonya Gilliam, a now-retired Commerce Department official under Clinton, told me that Mills was allegedly “coordinating” evasive responses to document demands that began in 1994 from Congress, grand juries, and news media.

In 1998, court filings report there was a “flurry of document shredding in the [Commerce] Secretary’s office” after the death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and 34 others in a plane crash. At the time, Brown was under an independent counsel’s investigation for alleged corruption and had just been served a notice to testify. The document obstruction continued for years, according to a 1998 federal court ruling. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth likened the behavior of Commerce Department officials to “con artists” and “hooligans.”

He found that they “wrongfully withheld documents, destroyed documents, and removed or allowed the removal of others, all with the apparent intention of thwarting the FOIA and [court] orders.”

In 1997, a separate case involving missing documents was brought against the FBI. Lamberth found no obstruction or conspiracy but referred to Mills’s conduct as a White House official as “loathsome,” blaming her for making “the most critical error in this entire fiasco”: learning of missing White House emails but not taking proper steps to resolve the situation.

In 1988, Hillary Clinton “ordered the destruction of records relating to her [legal] representation of [Jim] McDougal’s Madison S&L” when federal regulators were investigating the insolvency of the Arkansas savings and loan. That’s according to congressional investigators. Clinton has denied any improper conduct.

In 1993, a Secret Service official said that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Maggie Williams, removed records from the office of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster the night of his suicide.

Also in 1993, the White House claimed that no Foster suicide note had been found. However, White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum later turned a note over to Attorney General Janet Reno, claiming it had actually been discovered more than 24 hours earlier.

In 1996, the White House reported it found copies of missing documents from Hillary Clinton’s law firm that described her work for Madison S&L in the 1980s. The White House previously said it didn’t have the records.

In 2002, more than 25,000 documents were said to be missing from records that were released about deliberations between Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force and industry executives. That’s according to the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch, which said the missing documents might have included material related to the Enron scandal.

In 2003, former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger smuggled classified documents related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks from the National Archives. Berger removed handwritten notes by hiding them in his jacket, pants, and socks, and also took copies of some classified documents. He was sentenced to probation and community service.

In 2004, critics of George W. Bush said key documents were said to be missing from newly declassified White House materials regarding torture and other mistreatment of prisoners. These included memos to and from the FBI and CIA, and documents dated after April 2003.

In 2005, Bush administration officials told Congress that they couldn’t find a transcript of an Aug. 29 video conference call about Hurricane Katrina.

Also in 2005, the White House said that it discovered up to 5 million some emails weren’t properly archived and saved. The missing emails were dated from Jan. 3, 2003, to July 28, 2005.

In 2006, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald found that missing emails from the 2003 period could be relevant to the criminal probe into influence-peddling by lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who later was convicted of bribery and corruption.

In 2007, it was revealed that 88 White House officials used Republican National Committee email accounts—but that the RNC preserved no emails for 51 of the officials.

Also in 2007, it was discovered that the Pentagon had lost a crucial recording of an al-Qaida operative being interrogated in a U.S. military brig.

In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder withheld emails regarding the “Fast and Furious” scandal. President Barack Obama invoked executive privilege to prevent some emails from being turned over to Congress under subpoena.

2014 was a big year for missing government documents.

In 2014, it was revealed that the State Department may have lost track of some $6 billion because of incomplete or missing contract records over six years, mainly during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

Also, the IRS said it had lost 30,000 key emails sent and received by Lois Lerner and other officials regarding improper IRS targeting of conservative nonprofit groups. As luck would have it, 422 backup tapes containing the emails also were said to be inadvertently destroyed.

Additionally, the Obama administration revealed that records Congress sought in its investigation of problems with the website were missing.

And, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told Congress it was having trouble finding emails relevant to a probe into the environmental impact of a proposed gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska.

Also in 2014, the EPA said it didn’t save text messages at issue in a Freedom of Information case seeking records about the agency’s plans to crack down on coal power plants. An EPA spokeswoman contends that federal law doesn’t require the messages to be retained.

Also in 2014, the FBI later reported that a top aide to Hillary Clinton directed that an archive of emails be deleted, even though they were required to be preserved as government and public records. After congressional investigators issued a document preservation order, an employee used a program called BleachBit to delete the files.

In 2015, Clinton’s lawyer notified Congress that she had deleted 30,000 emails that were under congressional subpoena. An aide to the Clintons told the FBI that he destroyed some of Hillary Clinton’s old mobile devices by breaking them in half or hitting them with a hammer. Clinton said any destroyed emails involved personal matters such as the topics of yoga and her daughter’s wedding.

In 2018, it was discovered that key text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page in the FBI’s slanted probe of Trump–Russia collusion were said to have been accidentally wiped. The DOJ inspector general later recovered some of them. The messages revealed discussions about hating then-candidate Trump, wanting Hillary Clinton to be elected, ways to keep Trump from being elected, and an “insurance policy” in case he was elected anyway.

In 2019, the FDA and Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services claimed that documents relevant to a high-profile criminal scandal had been corrupted in a faulty email storage system.

In 2020, it was reported that the FBI’s original summary of a 2017 interview with Trump national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was missing.

Also in 2020, following the prison death of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, federal prosecutors told a judge that video of guards finding Epstein no longer existed. They also said that the backup video didn’t exist “as a result of technical errors.” Separately, it was reported that video of the cell exterior where Epstein tried to commit suicide weeks before had also been lost.

It’s easy to see that the problem of suspiciously missing documents is neither new nor rare. And until people are held responsible, it would seem we can expect more of the same.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-winning investigative journalist, author of the upcoming “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism” and the New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and managing editor of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program “Full Measure.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.