The staff of special counsel Robert Mueller turned in 27 government smartphones that had been “wiped” of all data, including the iPhone of Andrew Weissmann, according to new Justice Department numbers.
Of over 100 relinquished iPhone 6s and 7s in 2017-19, 12 were cleansed of any texts, emails, photos and notes due to password failures. Some were automatically wiped. Others were left in airplane mode and, with no password, were reset to factory settings which cleaned data.
According to previous Justice Department reports, investigators have the forensic skills to rebuild deleted phone data if needed.
Interest in FBI- and Justice-issued phones heightened in 2017 when texts leaked between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page. Both were key players in the investigation of President Trump. They moved from the FBI to Mr. Mueller’s staff, but were then fired for texting to each other their intense dislike of Mr. Trump. Mr. Strzok said he would “stop” him from being president.
The Justice Department redacted most names from Friday’s release, but not all.
Mr. Weissmann was one of Mr. Mueller’s most prominent prosecutors. He led the prosecution of Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Now an MSNBC legal analyst, Mr. Weissmann has attacked Mr. Trump and given advice on how to remove him from office.
He turned in his phone in March 2018. It was clean. The Justice Department documents say “entered password too many times and wiped his phone.”
Apple.com explains the process:
“If you enter the wrong passcode too many times, you’ll see a message that your device is disabled. If you can’t remember your passcode, you’ll need to erase your iPhone, which deletes your data and settings, including the passcode.”
James Quarles, Mr. Mueller’s No. 2 prosecutor, said his phone wiped on its own.
An email said Ms. Page was told not to delete data when she left Mr. Mueller. When turned in, her phone had been reset to factory settings and thus cleansed.
Mr. Strzok’s special counsel phone had few items and had not been wiped.
In December 2018, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report on missing texts from Ms. Page’s and Mr. Strzok’s Samsung Galaxy S7 phones before they joined the Mueller team in 2017.
The IG cyber investigations office was able to retrieve thousands of those texts.
Mr. Horowitz’s landmark December 2019 report on FBI wiretap abuse contains many text messages between Mr. Strzok and other bureau officials as he began investigating the Trump campaign in July 2016.
The IG also asked Mr. Mueller’s office to provide the iPhones used by the two. It confirmed that nothing of value was on the Strzok device before it was reassigned to another agent.
Investigators located Ms. Page’s phone. A forensic examine determined there was no pertinent data.
The IG’s ability to recreate data would lead to a conclusion that Mr. Mueller staff’s wipe phones could also be reconstituted if need be.
The conservative watchdog Judicial Watch said Justice released the phone inventory based on the group’s law suit in 2019 under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
“The pandemic of ‘wiped’ phones among the Mueller team requires a criminal investigation of this destruction of evidence and potential obstruction of justice and other crimes,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “The DOJ and FBI hid these records for nearly two years – which only adds to appearance of a cover-up.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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