Secret Service: Our Jan. 6 texts have been purged and can't be recovered

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

This reeks like week-old trash.

There are now three different federal entities looking for text messages sent by Secret Service agents on January 5 and 6, 2021. One is the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, who told Congress last week that the Service had deleted text messages from those days *after* the IG had requested them. That got the attention of the January 6 committee, which promptly issued a subpoena for the texts. And that in turn got the attention of the National Archives, which is now demanding a report from the agency on how the texts were deleted and what efforts were made to retrieve them.


WaPo reports this afternoon that the Secret Service is preparing to answer the committee subpoena with a sad trombone. The messages are gone, they’ve been purged, there’s no way of getting them back. Go figure.

The U.S. Secret Service has determined it has no new texts to provide Congress relevant to its Jan. 6 investigation, and that any other texts its agents exchanged around the time of the 2021 attack on the Capitol were purged, according to a senior official briefed on the matter…

Many of its agents’ cellphone texts were permanently purged starting in mid-January 2021 and Secret Service officials said it was the result of an agencywide reset of staff telephones and replacement that it began planning months earlier. Secret Service agents, many of whom protect the president, vice president and other senior government leaders, were instructed to upload any old text messages involving government business to an internal agency drive before the reset, the senior official said, but many agents appear not to have done so.

The result is that potentially valuable evidence — the real-time communications and reactions of agents who interacted directly with Trump or helped coordinate his plans before and during Jan. 6 — is unlikely to ever be recovered, two people familiar with the Secret Service communications system said. They requested anonymity to discuss sensitive matters without agency authorization.


There’s a dispute between the IG and the spokesman for the Secret Service, who claims that the replacement of staff telephones that wiped out the text messages began a month before the IG requested those messages, not after. The spokesman also says that none of the texts the IG is looking for were lost in that changeover, although I don’t see how that can be true if “many agents” declined to upload their texts before their phones were wiped.

Normally, at this point in data retrieval, law enforcement would contact the phones’ carrier to see if they have copies of the texts archived on their central server. But it must be that the Secret Service uses its own secure server; it’s unimaginable that communications involving the whereabouts of the president would be routed through commercial telecoms, where they might be hacked.

Why aren’t agents’ texts automatically uploaded to that independent server for storage, particularly given the nature of their work? If, God forbid, something happened to the president, any federal review of the incident would naturally want to see what the Secret Service knew in real time about the circumstances.

There are three possibilities to explain this mysterious and ill-timed “purging.” One is simple incompetence, which, as I said last week, can never be ruled out as a potential reason for Secret Service behavior. Although if “many agents” declined to upload their texts after being formally instructed to do so, that suggests something more than negligence.


The second possibility is fear of personal criminal liability for what happened during the “stop the steal” period, particularly leading up to January 6. People around Trump during that period were keenly aware that they were at risk of criminal charges due to what he was up to:

Multiple witnesses interviewed by the committee, like Mike Flynn and John Eastman, have pleaded the Fifth and declined to answer questions. White House attorney Eric Hercshmann claims to have told Eastman at one point after January 6 that he should get a “great effing criminal defense lawyer.” Any Secret Service agents who felt similarly compromised, or who simply feared that a congressional investigation was coming and might turn up other embarrassing information on their phones, would have had a corrupt motive not to upload their texts to the server before they were wiped.

The third possibility is that Trump’s Secret Service detail didn’t fear criminal liability for themselves related to “stop the steal” but did fear criminal liability for him, and were loyal enough to him personally to do something as crooked as deleting their texts to cover his tracks. A few weeks ago WaPo reporter Carol Leonnig, who wrote a book about the Service, told MSNBC that Trump’s agents were unusually loyal to him personally. The most famous example of that is Tony Ornato, who went from working at the Service to becoming deputy chief of staff in Trump’s White House, but there are others.


“There was a very large contingent of Donald Trump’s detail, who were personally cheering for Biden to fail, and some of them even took to their personal media accounts to cheer on the insurrection and the individuals riding up to the Capitol as patriots,” Leonnig said. “That is problematic.”…

Leonnig told MSNBC that Ornato was viewed as “so pro-Trump” that he was suspected by one of former Vice President Mike Pence’s top aides as someone who would “try to whisk Vice President Pence away from the Capitol at a critical moment.”…

“Bobby Engel and Tony Ornato were very, very close to President Trump, and some people accuse them of at times being enablers, and yes-men of the President,” Leonnig said. “Particularly Tony Ornato.”

Maybe the word went around among Trump loyalists at the agency amid the House’s push to impeach him that uploading the contents of their phones to the server would be unhelpful to their boss’s cause.

Hopefully the IG will get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, I’ll make you a bet: If Trump gets a second term, both Ornato and Engel will be back on his detail and/or rewarded with special privileges.

Exit question: Is it normal for the Secret Service to replace agents’ phones during a presidential transition? Who gave the order to proceed with wiping that data amid the most tumultuous transition in American history, when the agents had unique access to observe what the main player in an attempted coup was doing hour by hour?


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