Secret Service Unable to Retrieve Deleted Texts
The Select Committee of the House of Representatives investigating the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 announced that a key piece of evidence, text messages between Secret Service agents, could not be recovered. The texts were initially deleted after a planned device migration within the Service, which occurred at the end of January 2021. Members of the Committee, including the Chairman and Vice-Chairwoman, have called the deletion of the texts a possible violation of federal law. What this means for the future of the investigation into the events on January 6th remains to be seen.
Insider Communications now Lost
The Select Committee to investigate the events on January 6th, and more precisely, the former President’s role in those events, were dealt a huge blow on Wednesday, July 20th, as it was revealed that secure communications between staff of the Secret Service could not be recovered, after the messages were deleted. The messages, which could have shed light on the actions of White House staff during the attack on the Capitol, were deleted after a planned device migration occurred at the end of January, 2021. The device migration, which consisted of an upgrade of the iPhones used by Secret Service staff, was planned before the events of the 6th. During a device migration, a common event within all government agencies, all forms of written communications, including text messages, are mandated to be preserved and archived. This is to ensure that any future Congressional investigations of past events, such as this precise Select Committee, has access to information which may aid them in that investigation. The requirement to keep privileged data is enshrined in the Federal Records Act. Questions started to be raised about the location of these crucial text messages from as early as October, 2021, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a public alert that the Secret Service was “stonewalling” their efforts to retrieve these messages. According to the Secret Service, they turned over 10,569 pages of information to the Select Committee earlier this week, but the crucial text messages were not included in that, except for one message. The lone message which was not permanently lost was a message from the a US Capitol police officer asking for help from the Secret Service as they were being attacked by the mob. According to the Service, this was the only text message with pertinent information for the Committee. Assistant Director of the Secret Service, Ronald Rowe Jr., told the Washington Post that the agency is making “extensive efforts” to find the lost messages, but forensic analysts are pessimistic that the wiped messages could ever be recovered.
Technical Mistake or Purposeful Deletion?
As the news broke early yesterday that the crucial text messages could not be recovered, questions were immediately raised about if the deletion of these messages was a simple technical mistake or a purposeful cover-up of information. Many in Washington, including members of the Committee itself, say that all signs point to the latter. Chairman of the Committee, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) and Vice-Chairwoman, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) issued a joint statement calling the deletion of text messages “erasure”, a possible violation of federal law, and that “every effort must be made to retrieve the lost data”. Expanding on the last points, the two lawmakers said, “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 events surrounding January 6 were among the most important political events in the last decades in American history, and the idea that the Secret Service would not keep key text messages from that event, which took place only three weeks prior to the planned device migration, had many in Washington asking about the motives for the deletion of these text messages. According to the Secret Service itself, individual agents were allowed to decide which text messages they erased and which they kept from their devices, which would represent a significant breach of the most basic tenants of the Federal Records Act. There is also the added matter of the “human element” of the Secret Service, an agency which was, for the majority of its history, seen as apolitical. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the Agency became highly politicized with numerous reports of individual Secret Service agents posting pro-Trump messages on their social media pages, including sharing links and writing statuses calling the results of the 2020 Presidential Election into question. Allowing individual Secret Service agents to choose which messages to keep and which to delete, without those deleted messages being backed up, may have offered some agents an opportunity to erase evidence which may have been damaging to former President Trump.
The Importance of the Messages
Despite turning over more than 10 thousand pages of information, the text messages between agents of the Secret Service are still a vital part of the overall investigation into the former President’s role in the January 6th attack. The Secret Service, as the protectors of all high-ranking government officials, were present at nearly every important place on January 6th, including at former President Trump’s speech on the Ellipse, at the Capitol Building during the riot, on the House of Representatives floor during the vote to certify the election, and at the White House and Oval Office during the attack. The messages between the agents would show exactly what the former President was doing (or not doing) during the attacks, what actions he may have been calling for in order to increase the ferocity of the attack, and any orders he may have given to Secret Service personnel, orders which may be able to show even more evidence of a “dereliction of duty”. It is this dereliction of duty, an offense against the Constitution, that the Select Committee is trying to prove former President Trump committed by his actions on the 6th and before. Not only could the messages help the members of the House Committee gain insight into new information about the events on the 6th, but could also help to corroborate previous testimonies given to the House Committee from other members of the staff of Former President Trump. Most notably in this category would be the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson, former top aide to former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who gave some of the most damning testimony yet against former President Trump. This included telling the Committee that the former President was largely unaffected by the mob’s desire to execute former Vice President Mike Pence, who had refused the aims of the former President to decertify the election results, saying that the former President thought Pence “deserved it” and that Trump did not think the mob was “doing anything wrong”. The absence of the text messages from the heap of evidence given to the House Select Committee will only open more questions into the events of that day and further complicate the investigation into the events of January 6th.