Missing Secret Service text messages are a conspiracy you can believe in

It looks like the U.S. Secret Service (USSS), which protects the president, vice president and certain other high-ranking officials, is missing a whole lot of text messages that occurred on or around January 6, 2021. The messages appear to have been lost this January, curiously starting two days after the January 6 Select Committee in the House asked the USSS to preserve the records.

There are so many conspiracy theories out there that so far I haven’t subscribed to any of them until this scandal made the news. As an ex 32-year of federal employee, I went “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!”

Instantly, I knew this didn’t pass the sniff test. While it’s possible these missing texts were an example of grand incompetence within the USSS and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that’s actually the kind of conspiracy theory I couldn’t embrace. But someone or someones deliberately trying to bury these record, well, that certainly passes the sniff test. It’s not just inherently suspicious, you’re kind of crazy to think it wouldn’t be — at least, if you spent any time working in the federal government, you’d know just how mind-blowing it is that this actually happened.

Or maybe we’re just being lied to, which is quite plausible, but not something you would expect from the USSS whose safety mission requires trust. If you are a federal employee, however, it is made painfully clear that anything you do on official channels is a public record. Whether the records deserve to be retained indefinitely is a matter of law.

I doubt there is a federal employee anywhere who has spent more than a year in government and touched a work-related computing device that hasn’t been reminded about the need to preserve records. In my agencies it was a once a year reminder, mostly for people who got actual U.S. mail. These were typically digitized and placed in locked metal filing cabinets, and tagged with a records number which was placed in an official log. Official responses went in there too.

The stuff on our official electronic devices was magically archived somewhere. It was so important there were procedures to keep backup copies offsite. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was tasked to collect these official records, and there were hosts of agency employees who made sure it happened as seamlessly as possible.

I don’t know NARA’s record retention policy. Some records are more important than others. Freedom of Information Act requests, for example, are very important. Emails sent among my employees were not typically, unless they became political somehow because they spanned agency boundaries and needed to be seen or concurred on by our senior executives. Annually I was asked to flag these emails. I can’t recall ever flagging one because I was far enough down on the government’s totem pole that I didn’t interact with these figures. The closest I came was an occasional meeting with our associate director, who was on the Senior Executive Service.

Curiously, I retired eight years ago this Monday, on August 1, 2014. Before retiring I had to search for documents like this. I didn’t find any, but I did find some documents associated with the Privacy Act that I kept under lock and key in my office. They got shredded and that was good. They contained confidential information about my employees that was no one else’s business and they were in paper. Their digital equivalents were in various vaulted electronic archives.

Although I’ve been retired for eight years, I’m betting that if needed all my emails from the ten years I worked at the U.S. Geological Survey are stored in a government cloud somewhere. I’m also confident that they would be of interest to no one, so I don’t expect they’ll ever be searched. Anyone reading them would be baffled by all the low level conversations and acronyms anyhow. Perhaps NARA will allow the USGS to officially purge them at some point. More likely, these records will outlive me. As long as the U.S. government is an institution, they’ll likely be around in an electronic government archive somewhere.

Unlike the Secret Service, I didn’t warrant a government phone, so I didn’t have one so there were no text messages to backup. But I can’t see a Secret Service agent not having one of these devices. How often agents actually use the texting feature I don’t know. Most of the time I imagine they are busy watching people, but I’m sure they used them from time to time. On January 6, 2021 no doubt if an agent in the White House or Capitol had any free time, he was texting or calling someone. We already know some agents guarding Mike Pence were calling home sending potential last goodbyes – that’s how scared they were that day.

Also, these devices worked on commercial cellular networks. The texts are almost certainly stored electronically by these networks, or at least thrown into an archive, and likely encrypted. Minimally, there should be a record of the phone numbers texted. I’m sure this would be part of any government contract for official cell phones. Before a contract would be let, I am sure this would be in the contract. In other words, it would be crazy if these text records were not available in one of these cellular provider’s archives. Likely the only way they wouldn’t be is if they were deliberately purged.

The USSS says its agents were required to back these up locally before they turned in their devices in January and February and before being issued their new devices. No one was checking they did this successfully, however. This would be a nice thing to do, but in no way would it be the only way to recover these texts. This would be some ultimate form of digital insurance, to ensure the text messages were preserved if all other backups were unavailable.

I’m sure DHS has a whole team that ensures records compliance. There is no way this team or any team at the USSS could be so incompetent and ignorant of the law as to not have these records somewhere.

It’s not just text. The acting secretary and acting deputy secretary for DHS also lost their phone records in the days leading up to the insurrection.

So, yes, I’m convinced there is a conspiracy at work. The game’s afoot, so call Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. And likely if these records can be retrieved, they’ll be damning. I can’t see someone not being held responsible for this. If accidental, it would be a mind-blowing display of gross incompetence that should go all the way up to the government’s chief information officer, whose duty it is to make sure these things are done.

But that’s completely implausible. There’s some crime going on, it’s not just the cover up. I hope forensic data scientists can retrieve these records. If they can’t, that’s pretty much all the evidence we need that there’s crucial information about the insurrection that experts managed to digitally erase somehow, from likely multiple archives.

It has the potential to be a scandal as big as the insurrection itself, if not worse.

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