The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Secret Service watchdog knew in February that texts had been purged

Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) listens as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing at the Capitol on July 12 (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

A watchdog agency learned in February that the Secret Service had purged nearly all cellphone texts from around the time of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, but chose not to alert Congress, according to three people briefed on the internal discussions.

That watchdog agency, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, also prepared in October 2021 to issue a public alert that the Secret Service and other department divisions were stonewalling it on requests for records and texts surrounding the attack on the Capitol, but did not do so, the people briefed on the matter said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal investigations.

The previously unreported revelation about the inspector general’s months-long delay in flagging the now-vanished Secret Service texts came from two whistleblowers who have worked with Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, the people knowledgeable about the internal discussions said.

In recent days, one former employee approached the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), an independent government-accountability group, and described the decision from Cuffari’s office not to promptly disclose that Secret Service records had been wiped from agency phones starting in January 2021. The group relayed the information to congressional staff, who independently corroborated the account with a second whistleblower.

The congressional staff and two whistleblowers shared a concern that Cuffari’s office not alerting congressional investigators to the missing records reduced the chances of recovering critical pieces of evidence related to the Jan. 6 attack.

The purged texts of Secret Service agents some of whom planned President Donald Trump’s movements on Jan. 6 and shadowed Trump as he sought to overturn the election results could shed light on what Trump was planning and saying.

“It’s a dereliction of duty to keep the public and Congress in the dark for months,” said POGO senior investigator Nick Schwellenbach. “Digital forensics experts could have been working to recover these lost texts a long time ago.”

Cuffari’s office did not directly respond to the allegations about the alert Wednesday. His office issued an email saying he disclosed concerns in his semiannual reports to Congress in September and March that Homeland Security and the Secret Service were delaying his office’s investigation into the Capitol attack. The reports do not mention the text messages.

The independent government accountability group has called for President Biden to remove Cuffari.

On Wednesday, Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack issued a joint statement expressing concerns that the Secret Service phone system update led to the “erasure” of records — a possible violation of federal law — and that “every effort must be made to retrieve the lost data.”

“The U.S. Secret Service system migration process went forward on January 27, 2021, just three weeks after the attack on the Capitol in which the Vice President of the United States while under the protection of the Secret Service, was steps from a violent mob hunting for him,” the lawmakers said.

“Four House committees had already sought these critical records from the Department of Homeland Security before the records were apparently lost,” they said. “Additionally, the procedure for preserving content prior to this purge appears to have been contrary to federal records retention requirements and may represent a possible violation of the Federal Records Act.”

The missing texts could provide a more detailed road map for Trump’s actions and plans surrounding Jan. 6.

They could also corroborate or discount White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony to the committee, in which she said a senior Secret Service official told her on Jan. 6 that Trump had lunged in anger at the agent who led his security detail after he was told that he could not join his supporters on their march to the Capitol.

Hutchinson testified that the official — Tony Ornato, then temporarily working as White House deputy chief of staff — told her that Trump had also lunged for the steering wheel of the Suburban in which he was traveling. Ornato has denied telling Hutchinson this, according to a Secret Service spokesman, and Trump’s former detail leader, Bobby Engel, has claimed that no such physical altercation took place.

The Secret Service said it turned over 10,569 pages of information to the committee on Tuesday in response to a subpoena issued last week, according to a copy of the agency’s letter that the committee made public Wednesday.

The Secret Service acknowledged that on June 11, 2021, Cuffari requested texts sent or received by 24 secret service personnel between Dec. 7, 2020 and Jan. 8, 2021, two days after the insurrection.

Agency officials said they found one text message, a call for help from U.S. Capitol Police to the Secret Service as Trump’s supporters ransacked the Capitol that day.

In the five-page letter, Secret Service Assistant Director Ronald L. Rowe Jr. told the committee that the Homeland Security Office of Inspector General in June 2021 asked them for text messages sent and received by 24 Secret Service officials around that time and that they “are currently unaware” of any lost texts. He wrote that officials are scrambling to find out if that is true, making “extensive efforts” to determine if the messages had been lost and “if so, whether such texts are recoverable.”

Officials are pulling “any available metadata” to determine what text messages the 24 employees, who have not been publicly identified, sent on Jan. 5 or 6, 2021, conducting “forensic examinations of any available devices” they used and interviewing them to see if the messages were stored somewhere the Secret Service hadn’t searched.

The Secret Service’s letter said it has, however, “disclosed voluminous amounts” of records to the OIG’s office.

The Secret Service also laid out the timeline for switching out the phones and said its employees are trained to preserve documents as required under the Federal Records Act.

Officials said the planning process for swapping out the phones began in the fall of 2020 and the chief information and chief operating officers decided in December to switch to Intune, a Microsoft mobile-device software-management application, the following month.

The agency said it issued instructions to employees to preserve content on their phones and began the “migration” process two days later, on Jan. 27. The migration ended on April 1, 2021. But individual agents were allowed to decide which texts should be preserved, and the rest were wiped.

The wiped texts raise significant concerns the agency flouted basic document preservation required under the Federal Records Act, and did so at the same time that congressional and executive branch investigators were seeking those records.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who has testified before Congress about federal and presidential record-keeping, said the Federal Records Act requires government officials to preserve all relevant records, including email and text messages.

He said the Secret Service had a duty to protect the text messages for historical reasons but also because it is a law-enforcement agency, in case they were needed for congressional or criminal investigations.

Even the accidental loss of information “should still be treated as a serious matter,” he said.

“These records are the story of the nation,” he said. “That’s the point of the Federal Records Act.”

The Secret Service’s claim that it can no longer recover reams of text messages agents exchanged days before and on the day of one of the most chilling attacks on democracy in American history has spurred a legion of information technology gurus and amateur sleuths to action. Some have taken to social media to dispute the Secret Service’s claim that the texts are forever lost — and are busy postulating about the potential ways to recover the lost texts.

Schwellenbach said Cuffari’s delay in reporting the problem necessarily lowers the odds of retrieving data that wasn’t properly backed up and archived.

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