WASHINGTON — Secret Service agents deleted text messages sent and received around the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol even after an inspector general requested them as part of an investigation into the insurrection, the government watchdog has found.
The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, in a letter obtained by The Associated Press, said the messages between Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, 2021, were erased “as part of a device-replacement program.” The erasure came after the watchdog office requested records of electronic communications between the agents as part of its probe into events surrounding the Jan. 6 attack.
Additionally, Homeland Security personnel were told they couldn't provide records to the inspector general and any such records would first have to be reviewed by DHS attorneys.
“This review led to a weeks-long delays in OIG obtaining records and created confusion over whether all records had been produced,” states the letter, which was dated Wednesday and sent to leaders of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees.
Secret Service spokesman Anthony Guglielmi objected to the letter Thursday night, saying: “The insinuation that the Secret Service maliciously deleted text messages following a request is false. In fact, the Secret Service has been fully cooperating with the OIG in every respect — whether it be interviews, documents, emails, or texts.”
He said the Secret Service had started to reset its mobile devices to factory settings in January 2021 “as part of a pre-planned, three-month system migration.” In that process, some data was lost.
The inspector general has first requested the electronic communications on Feb. 26, “after the migration was well under way,” Guglielmi said.
“The Secret Service notified DHS OIG of the loss of certain phones’ data, but confirmed to OIG that none of the texts it was seeking had been lost in the migration,” he said.
The allegation that officials at the inspector general’s office were not given timely access to the material because of a review by Homeland Security attorneys had been raised by the inspector general before and is also not true, he said.
“DHS has repeatedly and publicly debunked this allegation, including in response to OIG’s last two semi-annual reports to Congress,” Guglielmi added.
The agency said it provided a substantial number of emails and chat messages that included conversations and details related to Jan. 6 to the inspector general and said text messages from the Capitol Police requesting assistance on Jan. 6 were preserved and provided to the inspector general’s office.
The erasure of the messages is sure to raise new questions for the House panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack, which has taken a renewed interest in the Secret Service following the dramatic testimony of former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson about former President Donald Trump's actions the day of the insurrection.
Hutchinson recalled being told about a confrontation between Trump and his Secret Service detail as he angrily demanded to be driven to the Capitol, where his supporters would later breach the building. She also recalled overhearing Trump telling security officials to remove magnetometers for his rally on the Ellipse even though some of his supporters were armed.
That account, however, was quickly disputed by those agents. Robert Engel, the agent who was driving the presidential SUV, and Trump security official Tony Ornato are willing to testify under oath that no agent was assaulted and Trump never lunged for the steering wheel, a person familiar with the matter told the AP. The person would not discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The erasure of the text messages was first reported by The Intercept.