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Why the Secret Service’s response on missing Jan. 6 texts matters

The good news for investigators is that the agency responded on time. The bad news is that the Secret Service’s reply was far from illuminating.


A week ago, Joseph Cuffari, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security told lawmakers that his office sought Secret Service text messages from Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, 2021, but he was told that they’d been erased. Just as importantly, he added that the Secret Service “erased those text messages after [the office of the inspector general] requested records of electronic communications.”

Given the potential significance of these texts, a subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee soon followed. Members said they expected to receive an instructive response by Tuesday morning.

The good news for investigators is that the agency responded on time. The bad news is that the Secret Service’s reply was far from illuminating. NBC News reported:

The Secret Service has no new text messages related to the Jan. 6 attack to hand over to the special House committee investigating the Capitol riot, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News on Tuesday.... The Secret Service plans to do a “forensic examination” of agents’ phones identified in the inspector general’s report, the source said, but added that the agency does not expect this will yield relevant emails or other records.

As regular readers know, the Secret Service has spent the last week insisting that the relevant text messages were erased as part of a “pre-planned, three-month system migration” in January 2021 that included resetting its mobile phones to factory settings, resulting in data loss.

In other words, as far as the Secret Service is concerned, nothing untoward happened. The messages were erased, but the explanation is benign.

The trouble, of course, is that many involved in the investigation appear reluctant to accept this explanation at face value.

Indeed, a Washington Post report added that the National Archives and Records Administration asked the Secret Service to investigate the “potential unauthorized deletion” of the relevant texts.

A New York Times report shed additional light on the timeline of events:

Congress ... told the Homeland Security Department to ensure that records related to actions taken by any of its agencies during the riots were preserved, on Jan. 16, according to a person familiar with the House committee’s investigation. The Secret Service has informed the committee that on Jan. 25, the agency instructed its employees on “how to save information that they were obligated or desired to preserve so that no pertinent data or federal records” were lost. Two days later, the system update went through, and the texts were lost.

Making matters slightly worse, the same article added that the Secret Service “did not do its own review of its performance during the period around Jan. 6,” despite the fact that “after-action reviews have been routinely completed for large security events in the past.”

I find myself dwelling on something Rep. Elaine Luria, a Jan. 6 committee member, told CNN over the weekend. “There’s a requirement for federal agencies to maintain records,” the Virginia Democrat said. “An agency that was such a key part of a critical event in our history, one would assume they have done everything possible to preserve those records, to analyze them, to determine what kind of things went right or went wrong that day.”

Quite right. One would assume that.

There was a violent attack on the United States’ seat of government. Leading American officials who receive Secret Service protection, including the sitting vice president and the Speaker of the House, were targeted by a radicalized mob.

The Secret Service not only failed to conduct an after-action examination of what transpired, it also failed to preserve highly relevant communications — despite the Secret Service giving its employees instructions on how to preserve pertinent information.

I don’t imagine we’ve heard the last of this story.