The revelation of erased Secret Service text messages from Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, is putting the agency in hot water, renewing questions about how forthcoming it has been in investigations into the Capitol attack, as well as the actions and motivations of agents.
The spat came to light after the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General notified lawmakers that it was unable to obtain “many” of the messages from those days due to a “device-replacement program.”
The episode has raised questions about the intent of the agency, with the government watchdog alleging they have long struggled to get information from the Secret Service, while others argue at a minimum the erasure appears to violate laws on retaining records.
“After January 6, it should have been crystal clear that there was a need to preserve records even in the absence of [an inspector general] request,” said Nick Schwellenbach, senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight. “You’d think that you might want to make sure nothing happened that would potentially look like a cover-up or risk inadvertently losing relevant records.”
The agency is trying to stomp out the flames, asserting that the information was not deleted intentionally after it had received a request to turn the records over, and that the device migration operation was underway before it had received a request to turn over the information.
“The insinuation that the Secret Service maliciously deleted text messages following a request is false,” Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said in a statement Thursday evening.
It’s the third major news story in the last two weeks for an agency that typically keeps a low profile.
One of its agents was removed from Israel Monday following an altercation in the country. And the Secret Service has also found itself at the center of explosive testimony from White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson after two of its agents said they wished to dispute her account that Trump lunged at a driver after being told he could not accompany his supporters to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Guglielmi said the agency has been nothing but cooperative with Jan. 6 investigations.
“We have given nearly 800,000 records to the committee. We’ve made every person available that they have requested. And we will continue to make every person available because it is important,” he said.
“No one at the Secret Service wants to see the insurrection that happened on Jan. 6 happen again. The Secret Service is by its mission the protectors of democracy. We protect the president of the United States. We protect the symbol and the office.”
The Wednesday letter from DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari to the chairman and ranking members on the House and Senate Homeland Security committees revealing the erased messages was first reported by The Intercept.
In a critical assertion, Cuffari said that those messages were erased after the inspector general had requested communications from the Secret Service as part of its evaluation of Jan. 6.
The Secret Service has strongly pushed back against the suggestion that it intentionally deleted text messages, as well as poked holes in the timeline of when the erasure happened.
The agency started a system migration process in January 2021, before it had received requests from the inspector general in late February 2021, it said.
“In that process, data resident on some phones was lost,” Guglielmi said, adding that the Secret Service said it told the inspector general that “none of the texts it was seeking had been lost in the migration.”
The Secret Service said it has provided many records related to Jan. 6 and preparations for the day to the inspector general, including approximately 786,176 unredacted emails, and 7,678 Teams chat messages by Secret Service employees. It also said that it provided a Jan. 6 text message from the U.S. Capitol Police requesting emergency assistance at the Capitol, suggesting that not every message from Jan. 5 and Jan. 6 was erased.
Guglielmi said the Secret Service does not have a “culture” of sending many text messages primarily due to security concerns. Those messages would be routed through various cell carriers and be too ripe for infiltration, he said. Secret Service members do carry cell phones, but they do not use iCloud and do not even have access to the app store. Instead, they primarily rely on a secure email system, though any texts are supposed to be uploaded to the secure system.
The House Jan. 6 Select Committee met with the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general on Friday morning.
Jan. 6 Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who also chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said that the DHS inspector general gave his perspective on the “impediments” he had encountered. The committee will “move toward engaging the Secret Service,” Thompson said, and will see if there is a way to “reconstruct” the lost text messages.
If the messages are permanently lost, the Secret Service may have broken federal law.
Schwellenbach, the senior investigator at the Project on Government Oversight, said that text messages about official government business fall into the kinds of records requiring preservation under the Federal Records Act. There is no exception for deletion due to a migration in system records.
“If records were lost, and there’s solid evidence that this was done by the Secret Service to hide information from the IG or anyone else, there are criminal penalties that could apply,” Schwellenbach said.
Even if it was unintentional, it was a “terrible idea” to migrate systems during a presidential transition period, Schwellenbach said.
Revelation of the erased messages has certainly stoked theories of malign intent.
“There have to be legal consequences to that,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said on his show Friday morning. “It appears the Secret Service is trying to cover for Donald Trump.”
Messages exchanged between Secret Service agents would help fill in information about the timeline of the day, and possibly offer further details about Vice President Mike Pence’s reported refusal to leave the Capitol on Jan. 6, despite a Secret Service request to do so.
“I’m not getting in the car,” Pence reportedly said on Jan. 6. “If I get in that vehicle, you guys are taking off.”
Had he been whisked away, Pence may not have been able to get back to the Capitol to officially certify the election. Some have theorized that the Secret Service was intentionally trying to keep Pence from certifying the votes.
Reports that many Secret Service agents were wanting to please Trump and were loyal to him have raised eyebrows.
Secret Service Assistant Director Tony Ornato became Trump’s deputy chief of staff in 2019, an unusual role for a career Secret Service official. Ornato is now back to being the agency’s assistant director in charge of training and professional development, according to its website.
Washington Post reporter Carol Leonnig, who wrote a book about the Secret Service, said in an MSNBC appearance last month that Pence and other aides were “incredibly suspicious” of the “palace guards, so to speak, and their alignment with Donald Trump, and whether or not they were pulling the strings if Vice President Pence climbed into that car.”