What the Hell Is Going On at the Secret Service?
It sure doesn't look good
I am reflexively averse to conspiracy theories.
The reflex comes from a deeply ingrained habit of attempting to apply skepticism judiciously—to ideas resting on faith, but also to those hatched by overactive reasoning; to ideas that advance my own political commitments, but also to those that confound them. Above all, I try to be skeptical of my own skepticism in order to avoid, almost by accident, defending the indefensible. That’s already become a recurring theme of this newsletter, and it plays an important role in this post.
In what follows, I am not proposing or alleging that the U.S. Secret Service actively conspired with Donald Trump to advance his extra-legal plans to remain in power after losing the 2020 election. What I’m suggesting is that there were and are enough troubling things going on in and around the agency that an extensive investigation at the highest levels is amply warranted.
What We Know
For those who haven’t been paying attention, here is the background:
The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol asked the Secret Service to provide it with text messages among 24 agents in the month prior to and including January 6, 2021. On Tuesday of this week, the agency informed the committee that it had no text messages to share, because they were unintentionally deleted as the result of a message-system migration that began in late January 2021. (The Secret Service has since provided the committee with a single text message. You heard that right: one message.)
This deletion took place despite the fact that on January 16, 2021, eleven days before the system migration began, Congress specifically instructed the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, not to delete anything related to the events of January 6.
People well-informed about the technical issues involved find the claim that the Secret Service accidentally deleted or lost all of the relevant text messages as part of a system migration highly implausible.
Per reporting in the Washington Post, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, a watchdog agency, prepared a public alert in October 2021 about Secret Service stonewalling with regard to requests for records and texts having to do with the January 6 attack. The alert was never issued. Then, in February 2022, this same office “learned … that the Secret Service had purged nearly all cellphone texts from around the time of the [attack] but chose not to alert Congress.” We know of both of these non-alerts only because “two whistleblowers who have worked with [DHS] Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari” have disclosed them to investigators.
The current director of the Secret Service, James Murray, was appointed by Donald Trump in 2019. Trump originally wanted to appoint Secret Service agent Tony Ornato to be agency director, but Ornato was at that time serving as White House deputy chief of staff. That crossover from the Secret Service to senior White House operations was highly unusual. (Ornato was a central organizer of the violent removal of protesters from Lafayette Square in June 2020 so President Trump could undertake a photo-op holding a Bible.) Instead of accepting an appointment to head the agency, Ornato apparently recommended Murray for the job.
Oh, and way back on December 31, 2020, six days before the events of January 6, Slate ran a short article, based on reporting in the Washington Post, titled, “Secret Service Shakes Up Presidential Detail Amid Fears Some Agents Aligned with Trump.” This reporting showed that prior to the Capitol Hill insurrection, the incoming administration made arrangements to have the president-elect protected by agents Biden knew personally from his time as vice president for fear that agents currently assigned to the presidential detail might remain loyal to the outgoing president.
What It Looks Like
So, just what the hell is going on at the Secret Service?
I have no way of knowing for sure, but this is what it looks like:
It looks like Tony Ornato was a Trump loyalist who may have acted as a bridge between the Secret Service and the White House and president.
It looks like Trump wanted to extend his control over the agency by putting this loyalist in charge of it. But the loyalist preferred to continue working by the side of the president and recommended James Murray for the job instead. It therefore looks like Murray may have been chosen because he, too, would be loyal to Trump.
It looks like the incoming Biden administration, prior to January 6, was worried that agents assigned to President Trump might not provide the president-elect with adequate protection.
It looks like the Secret Service, still led by Murray, oversaw the deletion of records related to January 6, despite laws mandating that government agencies preserve public records and a specific request from Congress that the agency preserve public records related to this specific event. The agency says the deletion was the result of error, but this assertion looks highly suspicious.
It looks like the Inspector General overseeing the Secret Service within the Department of Homeland Security became aware of the deletions many months ago and twice chose not to go public with the information or to inform Congress of it. It also looks like we may not have known these details at all were it not for the actions of two whistleblowers within DHS.
Why It Matters
Even many people who view the events of January 6 with appropriate gravity have consoled themselves with the thought that, however deranged and tyrannical President Trump’s efforts to keep himself in power might have been during the days and weeks leading up to the insurrection on Capitol Hill, the system held. From the judges (some Trump appointees) who threw the president’s dozens of lawsuits out of court, to Attorney General William Barr calling “bullshit” on Trump’s claims of election fraud, to various high-ranking officials who blocked the president at various points throughout the whole ordeal—in all of these ways and others not-yet revealed by the January 6 Committee, Trump was thwarted.
He left the White House, as scheduled, on the morning of January 20, and President Biden was sworn in at just after noon that day, with the transfer of power accomplished, even if less peacefully than ever before in American history. A coup was attempted but averted. American democracy survived.
But what we don’t yet know is how firmly the system held—and how close we came to a genuine civic catastrophe on that first Wednesday in January. Did the president have reason to believe armed agents of the executive branch would take his side during an outbreak of violence stemming from his effort to overturn the election? And if so, how well-founded was that belief? Was evidence that could help answer these crucial questions permanently deleted by the director of the Secret Service? Was he personally loyal to Donald Trump, serving him instead of the office of the President and the Constitution? Is he still? And what about the IG who allegedly withheld information from the public and Congress about the text-message deletions?
I want to be wrong in my suspicions. All I know is that it looks very bad—and at the very least the Secret Service needs to be thoroughly investigated from top to bottom. On Thursday afternoon it was announced that a criminal probe of the agency by the IG’s office in DHS has begun. That’s a good start, but given that IG’s involvement in potential wrongdoing, Congress, the White House, or both, will almost certainly need to launch their own investigations. The stakes are far too high to allow the matter to be handled by DHS alone.
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Hopefully DOJ will also be doing a parallel investigation as it doesn’t sound like DHS can be trusted to do the job right.
They have records retention schedules and by 2020, presumably, the technology, at hand, to capture text messages for retention purposes, so it’s hard to explain the loss. Much smaller entities have, and for liability purposes, have to have disaster plans that address the recovery of records. So it seems like a few of the easiest explanations are: Purposeful destruction; inadvertent destruction caused by reckless disregard for laws/policies/norms; or a major IT screw-up caused by negligence/gross negligence. It all looks bad.
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton used poorly secured IT infrastructure that was outside of the government’s secure system to conduct state business. I was shocked by that because, again, much more modest entities address this through policies that can be summed up as “don’t do that.” But yet it happened, and it didn’t seem like the error was based on anything more nefarious than bad judgment, which is relatable.
In the Trump era, I don’t think people closely affiliated with Trump (real Trumpists who are in the cult of Trump) have earned the benefit of the doubt, so the secret service thing deserves a lot of scrutiny.