Criminal probe of Secret Service texts a 'big deal' as agency draws Jan. 6 committee scrutiny
While the Secret Service says it cooperated, members of the House Jan. 6 panel seek texts for corroboration of other witnesses.
- Former director says Secret Service agents protecting Pence deserve a medal.
- Former director faults appointment of Secret Service official to White House staff.
- Investigators could track evidence of missing texts through phone companies and recipients.
WASHINGTON – With the exception of former President Donald Trump's White House, no entity has drawn the focus of the House committee investigating the Capitol attack more than the Secret Service.
The embattled agency now looms ever larger after the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general launched a criminal investigation into the destruction of text messages from the day before and day of Jan. 6, 2021.
“When you open up a criminal investigation into a law enforcement entity, it is a big deal,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service special agent who is now chief operating officer at Teneo risk consultants.
The deleted texts are the latest scandal for the Secret Service, which has struggled for years to overcome lapses and missteps. Earlier this year, suspects impersonating federal law enforcement officers allegedly cozied up to Secret Service agents with free apartments and other gifts. Through a series of directors and presidential administrations, the service has failed to meet staffing and training goals, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. Years earlier, events tarnishing the agency included a prostitution scandal in Colombia, a fence-jumper who made his way inside the White House and uninvited guests who snuck into a state dinner.
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Secret Service Director James Murray pledged again Friday to support "the extraordinary efforts" of the Jan. 6 committee, after already providing access to employees, thousands of documents and sensitive radio transmissions.
"As an American and Director of this incredible agency, I found the events at the Capitol on January 6th to be abhorrent," Murray said in a statement. "Since day one, I have directed our personnel to cooperate fully and completely with the Committee and we are currently finalizing dates and times for our personnel to make themselves available to the Committee for follow up inquiries."
Missing texts prompt criminal probe
The investigation found texts missing from 24 members of the Secret Service from Jan. 6, 2021. The erasures happened during a routine replacement of phones among staffers. Four House committees had requested the texts and other documents on Jan. 16, 2021, as part of the investigation of the attack, and the phone migration began on Jan. 27.
The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, Joseph Cuffari, announced earlier this month the Secret Service texts were missing. He launched a criminal investigation last week. The texts should have been saved under federal statute, regardless of the Capitol attack.
The agency has said it has cooperated fully with the Jan. 6 committee and with the inspector general by reporting the missing texts.
Anthony Guglielmi, an agency spokesman, said special agents provided dozens of hours of testimony and 790,000 emails to the committee already.
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"The Secret Service has been cooperating fully with all of the January 6th Congressional Inquiries beginning last March and the formal Committee established in June," Guglielmi said in a tweet. "Our cooperation will not waver."
W. Ralph Basham, a former Secret Service director during the George W. Bush administration, said while he has no firsthand knowledge of the agency’s deleted text communications, he believed that the loss of data was “not done with any attempt to hide relevant information from the inspector general nor the select committee.”
“That is not the way the Secret Service operates and I can also assure you they have done a complete review, deep dive of what happened and have provided that information to the proper authorities,” Basham said.
But Wackrow said there may be ways to recover the missing texts or for investigators to trace them through phone companies to the recipient or sender, who was not a member of the Secret Service. Another way to track down the information would be to ask the Secret Service agents about their texts, he said.
“All of this takes time,” Wackrow said. “There are potential forensic pathways they can go down.”
'A continuing scandal'
Norm Eisen, a lawyer who staffed the first House impeachment of Trump and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the Secret Service should be investigated for potential obstruction of justice for the missing texts and potential witness tampering.
“I think that there is going to be a continuing scandal,” Eisen said.
A former White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, testified Trump’s deputy chief of staff for operations, Anthony Ornato, described Trump reaching for the steering wheel of his vehicle and lunging for a Secret Service special agent when the driver and agent refused to take him to the Capitol after his speech Jan. 6.
Hutchinson said Robert Engel, the special agent in charge during the incident who was present when Ornato told her about the dispute, didn’t correct Ornato.
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The committee sought the texts to potentially corroborate Hutchinson’s testimony.
Ornato and Engel previously testified before the committee, but the Secret Service offered to have them return to dispute aspects of Hutchinson’s testimony.
Eisen argued that the "whisper campaign" of anonymous Secret Service officials questioning Hutchinson's credibility in news reports could be construed as witness tampering. If texts were deleted intentionally, that could be obstruction, he said.
“It smacks of witness intimidation and has to be investigated,” Eisen said. “Now we’re getting into obstruction-of-justice land.”
A committee member, Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., said some Secret Service witnesses have hired private lawyers.
"We anticipate further testimony under oath and other new information in the coming weeks," Luria said.
Magaw calls Ornato appointment 'horrendous,' political
John Magaw, a Secret Service director during the George H.W. Bush administration, said the agency has not been the subject of such contention since perhaps the Kennedy assassination.
Magaw said the Trump administration’s decision to install Ornato, a longtime Secret Service official, in the White House breached the agency’s institutional firewall from politics.
Ornato had been detailed from the Secret Service to the White House as assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for operations. He has since returned to the Secret Service as assistant director overseeing training.
“It was horrendous,” Magaw said, adding that it has opened the agency to legitimate questions about its operations and the influence of politics.
“That decision crossed the line into politics. I’m sure they will live to regret that decision, and here it is,” he added.
During his tenure, Magaw said he once refused then-President Bush’s request to allow off-duty agents to join his tennis matches during stays at Camp David.
“It may sound like a small thing, but it creates a perception that you are too close.”
Secret Service confronted Trump, protected Pence
The texts may never reinforce Hutchinson's testimony, but experts say that isn’t needed.
“There is not going to be a smoking gun to resolve that salacious issue,” Wackrow said in a prediction about the missing texts. “It’s not going to change the course of the investigation.”
The broader point about Trump wanting to join a violent, armed mob at the Capitol and being opposed by the Secret Service and others, including White House counsel Pat Cipollone, has been widely corroborated during the hearings.
After Trump was driven back to the White House, retired Metro Police Sgt. Mark Robinson said officers waited 45 minutes to see if the motorcade would take Trump to the Capitol.
"The only description I received was that the president was upset and was adamant about going to the Capitol and there was a heated discussion about that," Robinson said in videotaped testimony.
Basham said the committee would be able to learn what happened in the car from the driver and Engel. Basham said it took "a great deal of courage" for Engel to refuse to take Trump to the Capitol, which they knew "to be a dangerous and unstable situation."
Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the Senate during the attack, had to be evacuated as rioters rampaged through the Capitol. Members of Pence's Secret Service detail feared for their lives and make goodbye calls to relatives.
"Needless to say they were prepared to live up to their oath, and that is if necessary to sacrifice their own life to protect him or her," Basham said. "To me, they deserve a medal for their actions that day.”
Wackrow said he wasn't an apologist for the Secret Service because the phone migration was handled badly and must be investigated. But he doubted a tightly knit cabal could have intentionally covered up some aspect of Jan. 6 without others finding out.
"You’re talking about a malicious criminal act by law enforcement officials. It would be like a member of the Secret Service robbing a 7-Eleven," Wackrow said. "I can’t even fathom that a member of the service would engage in a criminal act or a criminal conspiracy. I just find that almost impossible."