The Secret Service erased text messages from January 5 and January 6, 2021, according to a letter given to the January 6 committee and reviewed by The Intercept. The letter was originally sent by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General to the House and Senate homeland security committees. Though the Secret Service maintains that the text messages were lost as a result of a “device-replacement program,” the letter says the erasure took place shortly after oversight officials requested the agency’s electronic communications.
The Secret Service did not respond to a request for comment from The Intercept. In a statement to the Washington Post, Secret Service spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi disputed the timeline, saying that some electronic communications had been deleted in January, while the Inspector General made its request in February.
The Secret Service has emerged as a key player in the explosive congressional hearings on former President Donald Trump’s role in the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to prevent the 2020 election results from being certified. That day, then-Vice President Mike Pence was at the Capitol to certify the results. When rioters entered the building, the Secret Service tried to whisk Pence away from the scene.
“I’m not getting in the car,” Pence reportedly told the Secret Service detail on January 6. “If I get in that vehicle, you guys are taking off.” Had Pence entered the vice presidential limo, he would have been taken to a secure location where he would have been unable to certify the presidential election results, plunging the U.S. into uncharted waters.
“People need to understand that if Pence had listened to the Secret Service and fled the Capitol, this could have turned out a whole lot worse,” a congressional official not authorized to speak publicly told The Intercept. “It could’ve been a successful coup, not just an attempted one.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the January 6 committee, called Pence’s terse refusal — “I’m not getting in the car” — the “six most chilling words of this entire thing I’ve seen so far.”
But, the Office of Inspector General letter suggests, key evidence in the form of the Secret Service’s electronic communications may never see the light of day. The Department of Homeland Security — the Secret Service’s parent agency — is subject to oversight from the DHS Office of Inspector General, which had requested records of electronic communications from the Secret Service between January 5 and January 6, 2021, before being informed that they had been erased. It is unclear from the letter whether all of the messages were deleted or just some. Department officials have also pushed back on the oversight office’s records request by arguing that the records must first undergo review by DHS attorneys, which has delayed the process and left unclear if the Secret Service records would ever be produced, according to the letter.
Asked about the matter, a DHS Office of Inspector General spokesperson told The Intercept, “To preserve the integrity of our work and protect our independence, we do not discuss our ongoing reviews or our communications with Congress.”
On June 28, former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified before the January 6 committee, disclosing that Trump had ordered Secret Service to take him to the Capitol so he could address his supporters. Later that day, Secret Service officials disputed aspects of her account, including her allegation that Trump had reached for the wheel of the presidential limousine and lunged at Secret Service.
A top Secret Service official allegedly involved in the attempt to spirit away Pence on January 6 remains in a leadership position at the agency. Tony Ornato, a Secret Service agent whom Trump made the unprecedented decision to appoint as his deputy White House chief of staff, reportedly informed Pence’s national security adviser, Keith Kellogg, on January 6 that agents would relocate the vice president to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. “You can’t do that, Tony,” Kellogg reportedly told Ornato. “Leave him where he’s at. He’s got a job to do. I know you guys too well. You’ll fly him to Alaska if you have a chance. Don’t do it.” (Ornato has denied the account.)
Today Ornato serves as the assistant director of the Secret Service’s Office of Training.
Agencies, especially those involved in national security, often use the sensitivity of their work to sidestep oversight, stymying the work of offices of inspectors general. It is not uncommon for inspectors general, particularly effective ones, to face institutional resistance during the course of investigations. Tasked with rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse, inspectors general are not always welcomed.
A Customs and Border Protection official provided The Intercept with a document illustrating the challenges. A briefing memo produced by the agency for a leadership meeting with the DHS Office of Inspector General on July 7 instructs participants on how to push back against what it calls the inspector general’s “persistent” request for “direct, unfettered access to CBP systems,” as part of its “high number of OIG audits covering a variety of CBP program areas.” In a section titled “Watch Out For/ If Asked,” the memo describes a number of exemptions Customs and Border Protection can rely on to evade records requests from the inspector general’s office — including national security exemptions.
Update: July 15, 2022
This story has been updated with the Secret Service’s statement to the Washington Post.