Secret Service text messages missing, but not forgotten


A watchdog agency learned in February that the Secret Service had purged nearly all cellphone text messages dated around January 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 divisions of the department were preventing it from responding to requests for documents and texts surrounding the attack on the Capitol, but did not do so, said people informed about it. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal investigations.

The unprecedented revelation about the Inspector General’s delay of several months in reporting the texts of the now extinct secret services came from two whistleblowers who worked with Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari, people familiar with the internal discussions said.

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

Congressional staff and two whistleblowers shared a concern that Cuffari’s office isn’t alerting Congressional investigators with missing documents have reduced the chances of recovering critical evidence related to the Jan. 6 attack.

The Purged Texts of Secret Service Agents some of whom planned President Donald Trump’s movements on January 6 and tracked Trump as he sought to overturn the election results could shed some light on what Trump was planning and saying.

“It is a dereliction of duty to keep the public and Congress in the dark for months,” said POGO lead investigator Nick Schwellenbach. “Digital forensics experts could have worked to recover these long-lost texts.”

Cuffari’s office did not directly respond to allegations about the alert on Wednesday. His office sent an email saying he raised 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 SMS.

The Independent Government Accountability Group has called on President Biden to impeach Cuffari.

On Wednesday, Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) and Vice Chairman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack released a joint statement expressing concerns about updating the Secret Service phone system. to the “erasure” of records — a possible violation of federal law — and that “every effort should be made to recover lost data.”

“The process of migrating the United States Secret Service system continued on January 27, 2021, just three weeks after the attack on Capitol Hill in which the Vice President of the United States, while under protective Secret Service, was steps away from a violent mob hunt for him,” the lawmakers said.

“Four House committees had already requested these critical records from the Department of Homeland Security before the records were apparently lost,” they said. “Furthermore, the content preservation procedure prior to this purge appears to have violated federal record retention requirements and may represent a potential violation of the Federal Records Act.”

The missing texts could provide a more detailed roadmap for Trump’s actions and plans around Jan. 6.

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

Hutchinson testified that the official — Tony Ornato, then temporarily working as the White House’s deputy chief of staff — told him that Trump had also rushed the wheel of the Suburban he was traveling in. Ornato denied telling Hutchinson that, according to a Secret Service spokesman, and former Trump retail chief Bobby Engel claimed 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 the committee made public on Wednesday.

The Secret Service acknowledged that on June 11, 2021, Cuffari requested text messages sent or received by 24 members of the Secret Service between December 7, 2020 and January 8, 2021, two days after the insurgency.

Agency officials said they found a text message, a plea for help from the US Capitol Police to the Secret Service as Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol that day.

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

Officials are extracting “all available metadata” to determine what text messages the 24 employees, who have not been publicly identified, sent on January 5 or 6, 2021, performing “forensic reviews of all available devices” that they used and interrogating them to see if the messages were stored somewhere the Secret Service hadn’t been looking.

The letter from the Secret Service says they did, however, “leak voluminous amounts” of documents to the OIG office.

The Secret Service also set the schedule for turning off phones and said its employees are trained to retain documents under the Federal Records Act.

Officials said the planning process for swapping the phones began in fall 2020, and the chief information officer and chief operating officer decided in December to move to Intune, a management application. software for mobile devices from Microsoft the following month.

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

The deleted texts raise significant concerns that the agency flouted the retention of basic records required under the Federal Records Act, and did so at the same time congressional and executive branch investigators were looking for those records. .

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

He said the Secret Service had a duty to protect the text messages for historical reasons, but also because it was a law enforcement agency, in case they were needed for investigations of Congress or criminals.

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

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

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

Schwellenbach said Cuffari’s delay in reporting the issue necessarily reduced the chances of recovering data that was not properly backed up and archived.

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