The Secret Service turned over just one text message to the House January 6 committee on Tuesday, in response to a subpoena compelling the production of all communications from the day before and the day of the US Capitol attack, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The Secret Service told the panel the single text was the only message responsive to the subpoena, the sources said, and while the agency vowed to conduct a forensic search for any other text or phone records, it indicated such messages were likely to prove irrecoverable.
House investigators also learned that the texts were seemingly lost as part of an agency-wide reset of phones on 27 January 2021, the sources said – 11 days after Congress first requested the communications and two days after agents were reminded to back up their phones.
The disclosures were worse than the committee had anticipated, the sources said. The panel had hoped to receive more than a single text and was dismayed to learn that the messages were lost even after they had been requested for congressional investigations.
It marked a damaging day for the Secret Service, which is required to preserve records like any other executive branch agency, and now finds itself in the crosshairs of the select committee examining its response with respect to the Capitol attack.
The circumstances surrounding the erasure of the Secret Service texts have become central to the January 6 committee’s work as it investigates how agents and leaders planned to move Donald Trump and Mike Pence as violence unfolded at the Capitol.
The controversy – and the subpoena – over the lost text messages came last week after the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, Joseph Cuffari, the watchdog for the Secret Service, revealed many messages from the time in question had gone missing.
In a letter to Congress, the inspector general said some Secret Service texts from 5 and 6 January 2021 were erased amid a “device replacement program” and indicated that the agency was stonewalling his investigation by slow-walking the production of evidence.
The Secret Service has said the missing texts were purged as part of a planned agency-wide reset of phones and replacement of devices. Agents were told to back up data to an internal drive, one source said, but that directive appears to have been ignored.
Hours after the complaint letter from Cuffari, the chair of the January 6 committee, Bennie Thompson, met the panel’s staff director, David Buckley, and his deputy, Kristin Amerling, before convening members to request a closed-door briefing from the inspector general.
The Guardian first reported the inspector general told the committee the Secret Service’s account of why the texts went missing kept changing, among other issues, prompting the panel to issue a subpoena for the texts and after-action reports later the same day.
But even as the Secret Service complied with the subpoena, and produced thousands of pages of documents related to decisions made on the day of the Capitol attack, the agency could provide just one text message, the sources said.
The Secret Service was also unable to provide any after-action reports, the sources said, because none were conducted. Cuffari said the agency opted to use his review as the after-action report – only for personnel to slow-walk his investigation, the sources said.
A spokesman for the Secret Service could not immediately be reached for comment.
The fallout from the missing text messages episode, as well as testimony from former Trump aide Cassidy Hutchinson describing a fracas inside the presidential vehicle on January 6 as Trump tried to reach for the steering wheel, has renewed questions over credibility.
According to the Secret Service, the sequence of events was as follows: agents were told of a forthcoming update in December 2020, Congress requested communications on 16 January 2021, agents were reminded to back-up data on 25 January and the update went through on 27 January 2021.
The agents were told in the reminder about “how to save information that they were obligated or desired to preserve so that no pertinent data or federal records” were lost, though the note seemingly went unheeded and texts were purged.
House investigators are currently discussing with the inspector general the possibility of reconstructing the lost texts, the sources said, examining options including acquiring specialized software and forensic tools.
The justice department inspector general has been able to retrieve lost texts, recovering messages in 2018 from two senior FBI officials who investigated former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Trump and exchanged notes criticizing the latter.
The Secret Service was not responsible for security at the Capitol on January 6 – that is performed by US Capitol police – but agents led protection details for Trump, Pence, and other executive branch officials across Washington that day.
But Secret Service actions have become a focus for House investigators as they investigate whether and when the agency knew Trump wanted to go to the Capitol, and whether it intended to remove Pence from the complex as rioters sought to stop certification of Joe Biden’s election win.
The missing texts are also the subject of a new investigation, after the National Archives told the Secret Service to launch an internal review and issue a report within 30 calendar days, if it found that any texts were “improperly deleted”.