Mystery Inc: The Case of the Missing Secret Service Text Messages

Dear Reader,

No Trump-related investigation would be complete without an investigative thread hitting a seeming evidentiary dead end, due either to the utter incompetence of every senior official involved or a massive coverup and attempt to obstruct justice (or both). Now, in the aftermath of The Case of the Dangling Pardons from the Russia probe and The Case of the Inappropriate Use of a Codename Server from Trump’s first impeachment, we reach our first big mystery in the January 6th investigation: the apparent deletion of all of the Secret Service’s text messages related to January 6th. Actually, let me correct that: the apparent deletion of all but one text (as in, one singular text message) leading up to January 6th from relevant Secret Service employees. The sheer preposterousness of this actually having happened could only be more cartoonish if the January 6th Committee ultimately discovers that the person responsible is the Secret Service caretaker who has been running around the agency wearing a ghost costume.

So, fellow sleuths, let’s take a look at the case. One January 16th, ten days after the January 6th attack on Congress, four House committees sent a letter to the Secret Service, along with several other agencies, asking them to preserve all records related to January 6th. Eleven days later, on January 27th, the agency proceeded with a “preplanned data migration” that would wipe all employees’ phones of any data. The agency claims that two days before the migration, it sent a letter to all of its employees advising them that it was their responsibility to save any records that were required to be preserved by law and provided instructions on how to do that. It now appears that literally no one followed directions, and here we are.

Let’s pull the Mystery Machine over for a moment, because if you’re like me, your head is already hurting. So first of all, preservation requests for data and documents (typically pertaining to potential litigation) are not unusual, particularly for large organizations like corporations or universities. They normally trigger some routine internal legal mechanisms, where (at least in my experience), the general counsel’s office will identify individuals or departments that may be in possession of the relevant information and send them a sternly-worded email instructing them not to delete anything and to contact one of the office attorneys if there are issues or questions. One imagines that, in such an instance, an organization-wide data migration might be flagged as potentially problematic and either halted or delayed, or at least additional steps taken to ensure – at the senior organizational level – that the requested information isn’t lost or deleted.

It should go without saying that this kind of protocol ought to also be expected from a government agency that is subject to congressional oversight. And folks, we’re not talking here about the Department of Agriculture. This is the Secret Service – a law enforcement agency that has an investigatory function as part of its mission. Its employees are trained in collecting and preserving data and evidence related to financial crimes. Quite apart from the preservation request, one imagines that the agency itself would understand that communications related to the worst attack on the Capitol since the War of 1812 might be important. After all, many of its agents were witnesses that day and might be called to testify about particular defendants…wouldn’t their observations that they shared with their colleagues potentially be relevant? Finally, it makes no sense that preserving these communications would be left to the discretion of each individual employee, without any further oversight, enforcement, or follow up. If you were a Secret Service agent who might be implicated in misconduct or a potential crime, “forgetting” to back up your data seems like a pretty convenient alibi.

But let’s not get carried away just yet. Government agencies, unlike most corporations, universities, or large private organizations, are also dense bureaucracies. Having worked in one of these “bureaus” myself, I tend to discount conspiracy theories that can just as easily be explained by colossal mismanagement. This is where we need to zoom out, and look at the bigger context. As Just Security’s Ryan Goodman has elucidated on Twitter, the text messages aren’t the only things related to January 6th that are missing. As the Secret Service data was being wiped clean, the following events were unfolding as well: 1) Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows, reportedly burned documents in his office following a meeting with Representative Scott Perry after the election; 2) Meadows used the encrypted messaging app Signal to communicate with Perry and other members of Congress up to at least January 5th; 3) the White House photographer was instructed not to take photos of Trump as the attack was happening, despite her wanting to document the event for historical purposes; 4) White House phone logs show no records of Trump making or receiving calls from about 11am to 7pm on January 6th (despite testimony and reports that he spoke to people in that time on the phone); and 5) the text messages for former Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, and Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, are also missing for the relevant time period. This is what we in the FBI would call “a clue.”

The trail gets even fishier when we start taking a look at our roster of potential suspects. The Code of Federal Regulations places responsibility for “preventing the unlawful or accidental removal…or destruction of records” on the “heads of federal agencies.” Since the Secret Service falls under DHS, that would be Acting Secretary Wolf, except that he “abruptly quit” for mysterious reasons on January 11th, before the preservation request and data migration took place. Cuccinelli, as the Acting Deputy Secretary, would presumably be where the buck stopped next – as noted above, his communications are missing as well. But what about the legal department? Well, DHS’s general counsel under Trump, John Mitnick, was fired in September of 2019, and he was not replaced until October 2021, when Biden appointed the current GC, Jonathan Meyer – making it unclear who was running the show in that office for the two years in between, including on January 6th. And finally, the Trump-appointed DHS Inspector General, Joseph Cuffari, has been increasingly implicated in the scandal, after it was revealed that he didn’t investigate the agency’s compliance with the congressional request until February 2021 (after the data migration had taken place), halted an attempt by his office to subsequently try to recover the data, and failed to disclose to Congress that the requested info was missing for five months. Oh, and by the way Cuffari is himself under investigation by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency for allegations of retaliation. Perhaps only coincidentally, he also bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Jenkins.

In short, the whole thing is, as my 13-year-old would say, “sus” (as in, “suspicious”). Whether we will ever see the lost texts remains to be seen (and seems unlikely), but we’ll learn who was responsible soon enough. It certainly looks more and more like an attempted cover up – and if it weren’t for those meddling congresspeople, they would have gotten away with it!

Stay Informed,

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Posted by Asha Rangappa