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Opinion The Secret Service texting scandal demands answers

A member of the Secret Service stands guard outside the White House in 2019. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Maybe the Secret Service is incompetent, or maybe there’s something even fouler afoot. Either way, the scandal over the disappearance of text messages around the Jan. 6 insurrection demands answers.

A strange story has unspooled this month about the apparent deletion of communications sent by agents around the time of the attack on the U.S. Capitol — and each new detail seems to lead us further from a resolution. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General says the Secret Service erased messages from Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, after it requested them; the Secret Service says the messages were permanently purged as part of an agencywide phone reset and replacement planned months earlier. The Secret Service is now under criminal investigation by the OIG. The OIG, in turn, is itself under investigation by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency for undisclosed allegations of misconduct.

These events raise a mess of questions. Most important, how on earth did the Secret Service lose track of these texts? IT migrations are easy enough in 2022 that most small businesses can do them without a snag. It boggles the mind that a supposedly advanced cyber-actor like the Secret Service, required by law to preserve this sort of data, would fail to back up information as a matter of course. That the agency would lose information so obviously important to the historical record is even more perplexing. And why did DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, an appointee of the previous administration, choose to alert Congress to the texts’ deletion only now, months after his office discovered they were gone? Finally, there’s the worry that the jurisdictional snarl created by the OIG’s investigation of the Secret Service will complicate efforts by the Jan. 6 House select committee to find answers of its own.

That the facts of this mysterious matter do eventually make their way to the public is essential. Congress was looking for these communications for a reason: The discussions among Secret Service agents before, during and after rioters stormed the chambers of Congress surely weren’t restricted to the radio conversations of which we heard snippets during Thursday night’s hearing. The real-time actions and reactions of those so close to President Donald Trump as he planned whether to go to the Capitol, and what to do there, can speak to his intentions and his state of mind — proving crucial to any possible case against him.

It’s encouraging that the DHS inspector general seems to want to get to the bottom of this matter now, at this bizarrely belated stage. But Congress, the Justice Department and anyone else paying attention should also keep watch, including over the watchdog.