There’s no excuse for Secret Service leadership not saving Jan. 6 text messages

The United States Secret Service used to know better than most federal law enforcement agencies that optics matter. Its agents’ iconic suits and ties, sunglasses and radio earpieces, their commanding presence and the service’s shiny armored limos have all served as a visual deterrent to anyone intending harm to the people they are protecting.

Over the years, the agency has earned a reputation as an elite protective service capable of fending off all manner of threat but, ironically, an agency so adept at identifying and countering threats now appears to be unable to see what may be the greatest threat of all to its brand and reputation: the agency itself.

The United States Secret Service used to know better than most federal law enforcement agencies that optics matter.

This blind spot has left the service reeling from a self-inflicted wound over public perceptions of its response to Jan.6-related congressional and inspector general document requests.

The Secret Service, despite being at or near the center of the unsuccessful coup attempt Jan. 6, 2021, did not preserve text messages its agents sent and received from around that time. According to NBC News, two sources familiar with the matter say that the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general has begun a criminal investigation into the destruction of those text messages. It’s important moving forward that the next leader of the Secret Service be someone from outside the service, someone tasked with bringing about a change in culture it desperately needs.

Evidence presented by the House select committee investigating attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election indicates that then-President Donald Trump was advised by the service about multiple armed individuals in and around the rally at the Ellipse that day. However, Trump reportedly told agents that he wanted metal-detecting magnetometers pulled from the rally screening process. Cassidy Hutchinson, who served as an aide to then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, told the committee that agents talked of Trump being furious over their refusal to drive him from the Ellipse to the Capitol and that Trump may have physically accosted an agent.

Then-Vice President Mike Pence reportedly told the Secret Service agent heading his security detail that he trusted that agent, but that he didn’t trust other agents and was concerned that they might drive him away from the Capitol and thus leave him unable to preside over the Jan. 6 certification of the Electoral College votes.

Anthony Ornato, a senior agent who had been given a role as deputy White House chief of staff for operations in the Trump administration, has reportedly indicated he has an account of that day’s events that contradicts Hutchinson’s account. The service publicly pledged to put forth agents who would testify that Hutchinson’s account was wrong — but didn’t deliver.

It’s understandable why on Jan. 16 of this year, the committee requested the service to preserve records related to the Capitol riot. The committee made another similar request to the service Jan. 25. Despite those requests, and in what was — at a minimum — a confounding display of bureaucratic blindness, the service moved forward with what it says was an already planned phone system migration that caused it to lose text messages. On Feb. 26, the Homeland Security inspector general “specifically requested text messages sent or received by 24 service personnel during the period of December 7, 2020, through January 8, 2021.”

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The IG’s frustration over the service’s alleged lack of responsiveness regarding the text messages caused him to eventually, but belatedly, report his concerns to the House committee. That’s when the committee decided it was time to subpoena the Secret Service to demand those text messages. In response, the service handed over just one text message thread.

Despite Secret Service personnel being reminded in email messages sent in December 2020 and January 2021 to preserve records on their devices before the phone replacement process started, the service has pushed back hard on any notion that its loss of data was malicious. But why would the agency leadership — who by Jan. 6 were aware that they had become a part of a major historical event and an unprecedented investigation — leave record preservation up to individual agents? Why didn’t the leadership immediately after Jan. 6, stop the phone migration plan in its tracks?

While there is no direct evidence that the loss of text messages was intentional, the damage has been done. The damage to the Secret Service’s reputation can only get worse if an investigation determines that the texts in question were deliberately deleted.

Damage to the Secret Service’s reputation can only get worse if an investigation determines texts were deliberately deleted.

Bureaucracies can bungle things, but strong leaders don’t let that repeatedly happen. They see around corners. They don’t acquiesce even when a president demands, as Trump did, to place a favorite agent in a political and operational role inside the White House. They understand and acknowledge reputational vulnerabilities and seek to mitigate them. This isn’t the first scandal for the service. As discussed in a comprehensive 2013 piece in the Washingtonian, during then-President Barack Obama’s administration, multiple agents on a presidential trip to Cartagena, Colombia, hired prostitutes there and “triggered the most embarrassing incident in the 148-year-old agency’s history.” The ensuing investigation discovered that such compromising behavior wasn’t “all that unusual.” Similar to what we’ve seen during the Jan. 6 investigation, according to that magazine, Secret Service agents were uncooperative with an investigation led by the Homeland Security IG.

As for today’s Secret Service, Director James Murray, who was appointed by Trump, is retiring after three decades with the agency. Like many of his predecessors, Murray came from within the culture he was trying to lead. That kind of familiarity can make it easy to be a manager but tough to lead strategic change. For real change to happen, the next director should come from outside the agency and should have a proven record: not necessarily as a special agent but as an agent of change. That new director will need to better balance the need for the Secret Service to be trusted by the people it protects and trusted by the American people.