The Secret Service Texting Scandal Makes No Sense

At best, it’s a tale of shocking incompetence. At worst, the parade of errors is indicative of darker motivations.

A photo of Secret Service agents on a rooftop, with Donald Trump in the foreground
Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

About the author: Paul Rosenzweig is a principal at Red Branch Consulting. From 2005 to 2009 he was the deputy assistant secretary for policy of the Department of Homeland Security, overseeing the U.S. Secret Service. He teaches cybersecurity at the George Washington University Law School. Twenty years ago, he served as a senior counsel in the investigation of President Bill Clinton.

The United States Secret Service is reported to have permanently deleted or lost a host of data, including text messages, that relate to the January 6 insurrection. The Secret Service says that the deletions came about as part of a routine, long-planned update to its phone system and that, as part of this update, it factory-reset its agents’ mobile devices, deleting all data. Skeptical observers suspect a cover-up of the agency’s errors, and more apocalyptic critics see the data deletion as part of a possible conspiracy to support President Donald Trump’s attempted coup. The entire episode is now under criminal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general.

Almost nothing about this episode makes sense. At best, the loss of these texts is evidence of astonishing incompetence at an agency that is supposed to be a sophisticated cyberactor, charged with investigating cybercrimes. At worst, the parade of errors is indicative of darker motivations.

Secret Service officials told The Washington Post that the deletions were not malicious—that they were simply part of a phone-system update. But best practice today for any system update is for the new system to be backward-compatible with older systems. Nobody who isn’t trying to conceal something wants to lose message history—not for messages about January 6 and not for more mundane ones about, say, procurement or leave approval. Migrating without the capacity to roll back is simply unheard-of these days.

Furthermore, why did the planned migration continue after the Secret Service received a data-retention notice from Congress on January 16? Was that notice not transmitted to the IT department? Were the Secret Service’s lawyers unaware of the retention notice—to say nothing of the agency’s obligations under federal law to preserve records for the National Archives?

Even if you did think an irreversible migration was essential, no competent IT administrator would fail to preserve old messages through a systemwide backup before migration. The Secret Service says that instead of doing backups at the system level, it left that to individual users. As the Post reports, “Secret Service agents, many of whom protect the president, vice president and other senior government leaders, were instructed to upload any old text messages involving government business to an internal agency drive before the reset, the senior official said, but many agents appear not to have done so.” That makes absolutely no sense at all—none. We are talking about federal records, many (if not all) of which are subject to retention requirements. A sophisticated cyberagency should not have left data retention to individual users when it could have been handled at the administrator level.

Nor does it make sense to say that the only text-message data the Secret Service can offer in response to a congressional request is a single exchange. Even if the contents of the text messages were wiped in factory resets of the agents’ devices, there would still almost certainly be metadata available about who texted whom and when. Likewise, some of the agents must have sent messages to people in other agencies (or to people outside government altogether) where there was no migration and, thus, no deletion.

But worst of all, that nobody in Secret Service management had the thought and power to preserve contemporaneous records of January 6 for posterity’s sake boggles the mind. Was no one in senior leadership interested in doing an after-action report on how the agency performed on the day? After all, January 6 had to have been one of the most consequential days for the organization in recent history, and contemporaneous communications records would be vital to that self-review.

For the skeptical, all of this confusion seems to point to malevolent conduct; it takes a lot of effort to go this far wrong in an IT migration. But even if this data loss isn’t a cover-up, it is deeply troubling. The Secret Service appears to have an IT department that would embarrass a small business and leadership that is painfully indifferent to the public discourse. They must have known that continuing with data deletion less than a month after a violent attack on America’s Capitol was inadvisable. One thing is more than clear: The Secret Service is in need of serious reform.